The first thing I noticed, apart from the vertiginous stairs leading to my small pew on Level C, was the incongruity of our little group, consisting of five women ranging in age from 68 to 13. I was attending the Ed Sheeran concert along with my daughter, my granddaughter, her half-sister and her best friend. This is probably not the usual demographic you might find at a popular concert: along with our age difference, we probably have little in common when it comes to taste in music or culture generally. So what is it about Ed?
Travelling by train directly to the venue, I noticed other small groups like ours as mothers, daughters and girlfriends piled into the train, chatting eagerly en route to the show. Of the 65,000 attending last Monday night, I would hazard a guess and suggest that women and girls made up more than 70 percent of the audience. Younger girls attended with an older male, father, brother, boyfriend or chaperone. Families of women and girls outnumbered the token male in their group. Ed understands his demographic well and encourages the boyfriends and dads to join in the singing, ‘This is your karaoke moment, dance, sing and forget about the people around you. If you don’t know the words, make them up’, Ed teases. There are many chorus chants in most of Ed’s songs allowing for mass participation without stuffing up the lyrics. Some of these chants come with particular waving actions, not unlike a soccer crowd experience only gentler, tamer.
From my vertical seat in the Etihad Stadium, Melbourne, Ed looked like an unreal creature, or as one of my daughter’s friends commented, ‘like a Ranger Ant’. It doesn’t take long to lose this sense of distance, thanks to the sound and video close-ups shown on screens at the rear. For those who aren’t familiar with Ed’s approach, he plays an electrified acoustic guitar solo, a one-man band, with no pre- recorded choruses, drum machines or tracks. Sheeran is known for using loop pedals in his live performances, allowing him to record his own guitar riffs, verses and chants before ‘looping’ it as he continues to play. After a song or two, it’s intriguing to hear the various elements being laid down, then listening to their reintroduction as the song builds, layer upon layer.
‘He’s up there on his own and he’s riding a wave of being in the moment with the music and every time he puts his foot down he’s either recording or looping or reversing or adjusting a track….It’s like watching a painter live paint a picture while doing something else at the same time – to a global TV audience. The pressure is insane!’
For those who were brought up enjoying singing in rounds, the effect is similar, only more electrifying and complex.
Ed encourages the audience to turn on their phone lights during the gentle chorus of ‘The A Team‘,
It’s too cold outside, For angels to fly, Angels to fly.
It’s a kitsch but magical moment, reminding me of the good old days when we would wave our cigarette lighters about in the dark during the more radical and anti- imperialist Midnight Oil concerts.
Sheeran’s music is eclectic, popular and non aggressive. While some of the sounds and lyrics might be considered simplistic and banal, as in the popular Shape of You, other genres show more depth and song writing genius. His music skips around most styles, Pop, Rap, Blues, Acoustic, English Folk, Beat Boxing, often incorporating elements of story telling or ballad. My favourites include the gospel R&B Make it Rain, sadly not performed at the Melbourne concert, and the multi layered Bloodstream, the live version added below which demonstrates Sheeran’s loop box recording for those not familiar with this technique.
Ed Sheeran’s concert tour of Australia and New Zealand sold over 1 million tickets. Now that’s around one in 30 people who attended the show, and if we cut out the very young and the very old, the odds get much narrower. His music might be described as broadchurch, but then it’s hard not to admire this gentle and enormously talented force, especially if you’re a woman or a girl.