Ed Sheeran live at Croke Park: ‘Nothing beats Saturday night in Croker does it?’

Review: The first of the singer’s series of large Irish gigs was epic and heartfelt

There's no better place for Ed Sheeran to begin his largest world tour than under the ragged blue skies of Dublin.

As an ambitious young songwriter, the Englishman was inspired by Damien Rice, part of that generation of Irish troubadours fuelled by acoustic guitars and rumpled melancholy.

Sheeran has taken that formula of unplugged angst and brooding man-woes, spritzed in some pop gloss, and up-cycled it into global fame.

He's also just one of two artists to have ever embarked on a stadium tour of Ireland – the other being Bruce Springsteen – and now he's back for a lap of honour that will move on from Croke Park to Cork, Limerick and Belfast.

As with everything Sheeran touches, it isn't edgy in the least. It is, though, epic and heartfelt

The carrot-topped titan of teary trilling arrives at Croker on the back of two warm-up gigs, in tiny Whelan’s and the slightly larger Vicar Street. At those shows, he treated fans to versions of Rice’s the Blower’s Daughter (good) and Westlife’s Flying Without Wings (the opposite of good).

It’s all so much more straightforward on the first of two nights at Croke Park, performed mid-pitch from a circular “in the round” stage. Promoting last year’s Equals record, he delivers a warm-hearted and slick performance, the set divided between new album cuts and hits from across his catalogue.

These songs, both new and old, make it clear exactly why Sheeran is the most streamed artist in the world. Tides, with which he opens, unspools, on the page, like maudlin coming-of-age treacle. “I have grown up, I’m a father now,” he sings, suggesting a millennial Cat Stevens.

But gooey sentiments are lassoed to a blitzing rocker that sounds like The Killers multiplied by Coldplay (the tune is co-written by Snow Patrol’s Johnny McDaid).

As with everything Sheeran touches, it isn’t edgy in the least. It is, though, epic and heartfelt. And, in a venue the size of Croke Park, epic and heartfelt are all that will really cut it.

Tides is the first song on Equals, Sheeran's fourth solo LP (fifth if you include his 2019 collection of collaborations) and a project that reinforces his standing as the biggest anomaly in pop. He's an unglamorous, boy-next-door type – but with a hit-making golden touch to turn Midas yellow with envy.

Equals finds Sheeran at a crossroads, as he reckons with marriage and fatherhood. He is also,of course, coming to terms with a decade of mind-bending success. And while Equals doesn't seriously muck about with the Sheeran format, there is the occasional experimental moment. 2step, which arrives one-third of the way in, for instance, opens with a guitar flourish not a million miles from Ben Howard or Durutti Column (if Durutti Column had gone through a phase of being influenced by Drake).

As a stadium headliner, Sheeran tends towards minimalism: often it’s simply him, a guitar and some loop pedals. Not that this has proved much of an impediment: his Divide Tour, from 2017 to 2019, holds bragging rights as the highest earning ever, with revenues of more than €800 million.

Sheeran has upscaled slightly for his new Mathematics Tour. Six glowing struts suggesting a mini-me version of U2’s famous claw stage. From these are suspended smaller screens shaped like plectrums (a four-piece band is is tucked beneath the stanchions). And during the Sheeran-does-metal (or “metal”) rocker, blow flames shoot upwards. It is, for better or worse, sheer Sheeran.

“I haven’t done this in such a long time,” he declares. “What I wanted to do on this tour is try something a little bit different. “

He’s referring to the backing band, a new addition swiftly sent to the wings as Sheeran moves on to playing acoustic guitar and serenades Croke Park from a revolving podium. It is difficult not to be impressed by this marriage of music and technology. And by the fact Sheeran doesn’t experience motion sickness or require a lie down afterwards.

“I’m so happy things like this are back on,” says Sheeran, wearing a black jumper with Dublin emblazoned on the back.

“Aren’t you happy? I’ve forgot how big this venue is and how amazing an Irish crowd can be. I was so nervous. Now I’m out here, I’m so excited.”

“I am so happy to be be starting the tour in Dublin,” he continues, picking up the theme later in. “Nothing beats Saturday night in Croker does it?”

You can't play a stadium without reaching for the hits and Sheeran doesn't disappoint

You can’t play a stadium without reaching for the hits and Sheeran doesn’t disappoint. Shiver is rocket-fuelled acoustic R&B. And Shape Of You (which comes during the encore) is delivered with conspicuous enthusiasm, the singer still presumably on a high after successfully defending the song against a plagiarism law suit last month.

Sheeran's ability to combine wildly contrasting influences as if it were the most natural thing is meanwhile underscored by Bloodstream. Built on loops and twitchy rhythms, it is both musically complex and yet as straightforward as a kick in the pants. As a bonus, it will satisfy those wondering what Sting trapped in a lift with Justin Timberlake would sound like.

It isn’t all good, alas, and there is that inevitable heart-sinking moment when he reaches for the weaponised diddley-dees of Galway Girl. His love letter to Ireland, home of his grandparents, it’s a song that makes you feel as if you’ve slipped, banged your head and woken up in an alternative dimension where Ireland is one huge Carroll’s Gift Shop.

It's icky (a later rendering of the Parting Glass is a better tribute to his Celtic roots). Still, Galway Girl is just one blip in an evening that copper-fastens Sheeran as an unlikely mix of global pop Goliath and one of your older English cousins over for the summer. And it confirms his status as an artist who has taken the dewy-eyed Irish troubadour tradition as personified by the Damien Rice generation and turned it into the most potent force in pop.

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