Like The Artist or Newt Gingrich’s primary campaign, Ed Sheeran is one of those leftfield successes no one in their right mind would have predicted. What chance of a scruffy kid from Suffolk with an acoustic guitar and passing resemblance to TV chef Jamie Oliver rising to become one of Britain’s hottest musical properties? Yeah, right. And pigs will whistle his songs as they fly off to watch a French silent film and cast votes for a family values champion/serial adulterer.
As usual, the received wisdom has got it wrong. Since scoring a top three hit with “The A-Team” in the summer Sheeran hasn’t looked back. His debut album has sold almost 1m copies. Triumph beckons at next month’s Brits, where he has been nominated for four awards. When the FT reviewed him in July he was playing his largest ever London headlining show in front of 1,000 people. Last week he was back for two nights at the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy. “Thank you for being present at my biggest gig to date,” he announced on the first night, with the swagger of the tyro who sees a succession of bigger gigs stretching ahead of him.
Sheeran, 20, isn’t short of confidence. It’s needed for his act, which consists of him alone with his guitar and a loops pedal, the latter being used to play back snatches of vocals or music. An a cappella cover of the 19th-century American folk song “The Wayfaring Stranger” was constructed entirely from vocal loops, Sheeran separately recording each element – human beatbox sound effects, backing harmonies – and then layering them together live on stage. The effect was startling; so startling indeed that you momentarily forgot the novelty of seeing a chart pop star with a following of camera phone-toting young fans covering a 200-year-old spiritual from the Catskill Mountains.
Would his show translate to larger venues? There was the odd warning sign: a premonition that confidence could turn into bumptiousness, or that sentimentality could turn into mawkishness, as on a new song written for his godparents’ wedding. But mostly Sheeran was impressive and likeable – a bold jumble of musical influences, from the pleading singer-songwriter of “Give Me Love” to the urban-music fan who was joined by guest rappers on two tracks. One was “The A-Team”, which offered the peculiar sight of 5,000 people singing along to a song about a homeless drug addict prostituting herself. Alongside the huge catchy choruses was the exhilaration of sensing a rule book being torn up.