A night out with 80,000 Ed-heads
The view from the Cusack Stand at the second of Ed Sheeran’s Croke Park shows.
Big gigs have a certain aroma and Ed Sheeran at Croke Park smells of ketchup. All around the stadium, from the lower levels of Cusack Stand to the higher reaches of the Hogan Stand and onto the pitch itself, there are young people, old people and in-between people munching on chips smothered in ketchup. They’re munching away as they wait for Sheeran, his guitar, the loop pedal and the big ol’ spectacle that turns one man and his guitar and pedal into something which can entertain 80,000 people for a couple of hours. They’re waiting for the beat to drop.
It was always thus. 30 years ago, many of the parents of the kids at Sheeran had their first big gig experience in this very same ground. That was when U2 and guests took to the stage and there’s a great piece by Colm O’Callaghan as he rewinds the years to remember that big day out here. The venue may have looked nothing like the state-of-the-art sports arena of today, but the chips and ketchup were probably much the same (as indeed was the promotions company who put on both shows three decades apart). We can hopefully look forward to some Sheeran fans recalling their gig adventures with such vibrant colour and candour three decades from now.
Those recollections may also help to decipher Sheeran’s special sauce for those who’ll wonder in years to come about an unassuming singer-songwriter’s monster appeal at this particular juncture with just two albums under his oxter. The acts who sell out stadiums like this in the blink of an eye are either acts with a platinum-chequered back-catalogue or ephemeral boy-band acts who’re here today, gone tomorrow and back for good again in a few years’ time when the tax bills drop in the letterbox. Sheeran is certainly not the former (yet) and is not as reliant on grooming as the latter so you can’t trust either narrative to explain his particular trajectory to date.
The songs? When you distil them down to bare bones and essence, Sheeran’s songs are decked out with simple, effective, pretty melodies, catchy hooks, occasional melancholic moody bits and flurries of furious fist-pumping energy. They work because the crowd here know them as well as the freckles on the back on their hands. But you know and I know and the A&R dudes trying to produce new Eds to capitalise on this moment know that there are a gazillion other acts rolling the dice in a similar creative manner to Sheeran, yet none of them are coming up with the double sixes like this in terms of results and appeal. That these tunes are making a connection with this vast audience is undeniable; the question, then, is a bit of a Balotelli – why Ed?
As all acts who’ve had success realise, it comes down to a connection with a mass audience and you can’t fake or invent or double-guess that. You can try, but you won’t fill Croker to the brim two nights in a row. Much has been made of Sheeran being a nice lad – unscripted appearances on the Late Late Show toy show to make some fan’s day, heading off after Croker to hang with his granny and all of that – while radio airplay, Spotify stats and social media mania are also part of the package.
Yet none of this would matter a jot if Sheeran’s songs didn’t form a bond with a huge audience to begin with. This bond makes fans want to go to the shows, preach the Ed gospel to their social networks and want to hear more. It’s a formula which has worked since rock and pop singers first started to croon and emote and it’s as impossible to predict who’ll make that link now as it was then. It’s the joyful mystery of pop, if you like, and you don’t have to climb Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in July to know you can’t decipher something as totally subjective as that.
So Sheeran plays the big tunes, the tunes only the diehards know and the cover versions and everyone screams. He brings on Kodaline and Glen Hansard and everyone screams again. He wears the Wexford county jersey and Gain Feeds’ social media reach goes through the roof. He bashes the guitar, loops the sounds and multiple Eds appear behind him on the giant screens. You’ve been to a big show before so you know the shorthand and the lexicon, but it works again and again and again when there’s a real, tenable connection between what’s happening on the stage and what reaches the crowds on the pitch a poc fada away.
There will be other Eds along in the next while. I’d bet the gaff that there will be someone else along in the next 18 months who’ll seemingly come from nowhere to pull a massive following and sell out big venues. Everyone inside the tent will scream and everyone outside will scratch their heads and wonder why. It’s how this game goes.
Meanwhile, Sheeran himself will still be very much at play. There are more songs to write, albums to sell, gigs to perform. As the years go by, he’ll change and his crowd will change because we all change as we age. Thirty years from now, when some kid who was at the gig on Saturday is remembering their first big day out, Sheeran may still be out there with that guitar and loop pedal banging the tunes out for the faithful. As long as there’s a connection, there’ll be an Ed show.