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There won’t be many worse places for Ed Sheeran to rap the lines “Madison Square Garden is where I might be, but more likely you’ll find me in the back room of a dive bar with my mates” than on the first of three nights at Wembley Stadium in front of 90,000 fans.
Sheeran did the rap, from the song “Take It Back”, with a straight face, although I doubt he has seen the inside of a dive bar for many moons and his “mates” now include Taylor Swift. As his success gets more stratospheric, he faces the challenge of persuading us he’s still down-to-earth. Headlining Wembley three nights in a row, playing to a total of more than a quarter of a million people, was the biggest escalation yet in that challenge.
The plan initially seemed to be for Sheeran to pretend it was perfectly normal for one man and his guitar to appear on such a vast stage. He opened the show with the same patter and pair of songs as his O2 Arena gig in London last year. The effect felt underwhelming, a failure to admit the change in scale.
But he quickly turned it round. Armed only with his usual prop, an effects pedal with which to loop his voice and guitar, Sheeran warmed to the tricky task of making his music sound huge without vulgarising it.
Tender ballad “Photograph” was accessorised with big vocal refrains echoing into the rafters, while “Bloodstream” built to a huge peak, its beats produced by Sheeran looping the sound of him drumming the side of his acoustic guitar.
The only guest was Sheeran’s mentor Elton John, owner of the management company that represents him. With Elton barrel-housing at the piano, the pair played each other’s songs, first Elton’s hit with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” — the song pushed hard, like a thoroughbred in a race — then a dramatic rendition of Sheeran’s “Afire Love”.
His guitar-playing was unshowy. Looped effects, rather than feats of virtuosity, gave it force, as did Sheeran’s ear for melody. Meanwhile his singing was excellent, going within the space of a single song from sweet high tones to impassioned cries. “I feel we can make it anthemic,” he said before playing his first number one single, 2011’s “The A Team”. Ninety thousand voices proved him right.