ABOVE: Ed Sheeran (pictured at a tour stop in Philadelphia on Sept. 8) headlined the Allstate Arena on Tuesday night. | Owen Sweeney/Invision/AP
BY SELENA FRAGASSI | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
In the middle of set changeovers Tuesday night, security could be seen frantically briefing each other, eager fans unrolled poster boards glittered with their favorite song lyrics and unlikely requests for a homecoming date, and merchandise lines wrapped around the Allstate Arena like vendors were giving away gold-plated T-shirts. All of it for Ed Sheeran, the unlikely rock star.
The 23-year-old U.K. sensation, in the throes of his first-ever North American headlining tour, doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a megawatt entertainer — he’s the type of merciless singer-songwriter you’d expect to be fighting to overcome the gargle of a milk steamer at a coffee shop open mic night, not standing by himself with an acoustic guitar in a monolithic arena exposed to 10,000 screaming fans. Or playing “Saturday Night Live.” Or having a nine-part docuseries on MTV.
Yet thanks to some high-profile endorsements from stars like Taylor Swift, who tapped Sheeran to open up her “Red” tour in 2013, the stage was set. And on this night, the jeans-and-flannel-wearing singer used every inch of it to deliver a one-man show of confessional monologues that mixed soulful folk implosions with hip-hop rhythms, scat thrashing and explosive guitar playing that echoed through a pattern of looped pedals.
Without missing a beat, and with barely any new equipment besides a re-tuned six-string, Sheeran worked with the little he had, instantaneously transforming from street busker to R&B crooner to speed junkie emcee, often throwing punches at the body of his guitar to add bolts of thundering percussion. “I’m not a rapper, I’m a singer with flow,” he declared in the autobiographical song “Take It Back,” his voice falling somewhere between his idol Damien Rice and Biz Markie.
The 17-song set stuck mostly to the material off his new album “x,” but it also had quite a few firsts. It was the first time he performed the song “Nina,” a diorama about his ex-girlfriend, the Scottish musician and model Nina Nesbitt. It was the first time he was accompanied by an electric guitar on stage for an amped version of “Thinking Out Loud,” and it was one of the only times on his current tour that Sheeran played the emotive ballad “All Of The Stars,” a song prominently featured on the soundtrack to the summer movie “The Fault in Our Stars.”
“You need to leave with no voice,” Sheeran exclaimed to the packed house in his few moments of stage banter (another time asking if it was OKto use the word “Chi-town,” admitting it was both the coolest and lamest thing he’d done all day). The crowd dutifully followed with unabashed sing-alongs, even the parents finding their footing in Sheeran’s rehearsed medleys that weaved Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” into his hit “Don’t” or the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” that tangoed with the song “Runaway.”
The night’s unequivocal standout, though, was the pop ballad “Bloodstream,” a drug-addled song he co-wrote with the English funktronica group Rudimental. Although they were also the night’s opening act, the nine-member collective unfortunately missed their opportunity to reemerge for any kind of live collaboration that could have easily been the scene-stealer.
As he wrapped up his set with a three-song encore, the words of Sheeran’s hit “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” were a bold exit statement. Perhaps someone like him is needed to shake up the perception of the singer-songwriter to give their voices a new stage.
I’m a Mess
Take It Back
Runaway/Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)
All of the Stars
Thinking Out Loud
Give Me Love
I See Fire
You Need Me I Don’t Need You
The A Team