With his pasty complexion and humble demeanour Ed Sheeran looks more like the boy next door than a pop deity. Yet there was no mistaking the singer’s superstar wattage as, on the first night of his blockbuster Irish tour, he ambled on stage at Cork’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh to ecstatic screams.
Music’s most famous redhead has been rocking stadiums for some time now – it’s three years since he sold out Croke Park twice over.
Even so, the anticipation surrounding the Cork show was clearly not lost on Sheeran, as he kicked off with Castle on the Hill, a chiming love song that spoke to the 27 year-old's maturity as a lyricist and his ability to weave intense emotions into weightless pop.
Some 40,000 had turned out for his opening date on Leeside – another 80,000 will stream into the venue Saturday and Sunday – and musician and audience seemed to have a shared appreciation this would be a special evening.
That Cork is merely the first leg of a nine-stop jaunt that also includes Dublin, Galway and Belfast – and which has seen him shift an estimated 400,000 tickets – confirms how big a force Sheeran, who flew into Cork by private jet late on Thursday, has become.
“It’s Friday night – it’s the first date of the Irish tour . . . I’m so happy to be in Cork,” he said, underscoring his everyday quality by sporting a simple checked shirt.
Later, he reached for the old bromide that “the best crowds are in Ireland . . . that’s a fact.” There were kind words, too, for the boyfriends dragged along against their will and the selfless dads here with their kids and a hat-tip to local sensibilities when he returned for the encore in a Cork GAA jersey.
To headline an arena of this scale without accompaniment requires supreme drive and chutzpah – qualities Sheeran possess in abundance (a busy yet never intrusive light show helped). He manipulated his guitar using with a complicated-looking array of effects pedals to build simple riffs into huge squalls of noise – a vivid counterpoint to his sweet and unaffected voice.
Sheeran wasn't above letting his guard down, such as on One, a stuck-in-the-friend-zone lament that prompted one of several mass singalongs, with concert-goers waving their phones in the air.
It was the sort of underdog ballad that could easily collapse into sappiness but which Sheeran imbued with real, raw heartache. There was time, too, for more direct moments including funk assault Sing and, before the final curtain, a steamy Shape of You and a rap-fuelled You Need Me, I Don't Need You.
Sheeran didn't always stay on the tight-rope, though, as demonstrated by the gloop-onslaught that was Perfect – a valentine that went on forever and where it started to feel you were being thumped about the head by a giant Hallmark card.
Also sure to irritate purists was Galway Girl – his paean to deedly-dee Irish music, for which he invited on trad group Beoga. He teased us by beginning with the chorus of the Steve Earle standard of the same name, then segued into his own number – a bulldozer assault of Celtic tweeness.
This was the first Páirc Uí Chaoimh concert since its €80m million redevelopment, and organisers had pledged there would be no repeat of the crowd issues that had delayed the exit of some audience members following a Bruce Springsteen show in 2015.
A large but discreet Garda presence was in evidence, and attendees were not permitted entry with larger bags. With so many under-18s among Sheeran’s fan-base, a “tag a child” scheme had been instituted, with the parent’s contact number written on wristbands affixed to minors.
On a balmy afternoon the atmosphere had been upbeat as support acts Jamie Lawson, and Anne-Marie got the crowd in the mood.
By the time Sheeran arrived shortly before 9pm, darkness tinged the horizon. But the sunset proved a red dawn as the ginger wunderkind got into his stride and thousands of voices joined his in song.