When Ed Sheeran tweeted in June that he was forced to use a band on his most recent tour due to the nature of his new songs, I'll admit I was a little disappointed. I understood, but I still felt like he couldn't be the same impressive musician I'd seen open for Taylor Swift a year prior. Of course, I probably should have known better.
Yes, he has a background band now, but he's also using multiple looper pedals and experimenting on stage more than ever. He has the right to do so; it's HIS stage and his audience is as excited as him when something new works out.
Opening for Ed Sheeran at his Chicago show Tuesday was U.K.-based band Rudimental. The band had at least four vocalists, a drummer, a keyboardist and even a trumpeter. This made for a mix of sounds, each song different from the last. Their variable sound made for a good opening to the main act.
I attended Sheeran’s concert with a friend of mine from high school. The weekend of the Michigan game she'd been in D.C. watching him perform. As such, she was quite sure she knew exactly what would happen in Chicago. It was surprising how often she was wrong.
The opening song was the same — Sheeran stepped out to screams and performed “I'm a Mess.” It quickly became apparent to me that the presence of a background band did not mean he was doing any less. He still had his guitar and the looper pedals that astound me every time he uses them. Between nearly every song he'd switch out guitars (I smiled at that, remembering the broken guitar string that caught him up at Taylor Swift.) In fact, the band didn't become apparent to me until he started rapping “Take It Back.”
After strumming the opening lines of the song, he removed his guitar and grabbed the microphone to perform. Songs like “Take It Back” and “You Need Me, I Don't Need You” have always impressed me. I never expected the man who sings slow, sad songs like “The A Team” or “Tenerife Sea” to also be able to rap as effectively as Ed Sheeran does.
Perhaps one of the most impressive things about the concert was his use of background graphics. Originally, four screens showed Sheeran as he performed, but soon enough there was an illustrated performance of “The Man” and “I See Fire,” featuring a dragon sequence from the second part of “The Hobbit.” He even referenced Rupert Grint's role in his “Lego House” video, displaying dancing Ron Weasley and Ed Sheeran Lego men behind him.
All of these bits were clearly consistent with prior shows. My friend told me exactly what I needed to be watching and when. But, as I mentioned before, she didn't always know. The first surprise was his performance of “All of the Stars” from the motion picture “The Fault In Our Stars.” Before singing, he warned the audience that he had only performed the song live twice before and that it could be a bit rocky. Of course, as soon as the audience recognized the song, everyone was too busy singing along to notice if he messed up.
The second, and probably more notable of his surprises, was his use of an electric guitar midway through the show. He came on to perform “Nina,” once again warning that he had never played the song live. He’d also never performed with an electric guitar. It was a hit with everyone and by the end of the song, you could see on his face how satisfied he was with the risk he’d taken.
Ed Sheeran’s new album already proved he was undergoing massive shifts in sound, and that he was willing to take risks with the popularity he’d already gained. “X” wasn’t what anyone expected from the British songwriter. His experimental nature in his concerts shows that this evolution is not likely to stop anytime soon and, hopefully, on his next album we’ll have the chance to hear something this inventive again.