Bayou City

Ed Sheeran's Houston Takeover Was a Crushing Success

Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
Ed Sheeran
Toyota Center
August 19, 2017

Ed Sheeran's most recent album — ÷ (pronounced "divide" because duh) — has sold over three million copies worldwide to date, and it was released just a little over five months ago. His show Saturday night at the Toyota Center was the hottest ticket in town, and the sold-out crowd made their appreciation known loudly and often. The guy is at the top of his game, and he's only 26 years old, a fact almost as impressive as it is infuriating.

But before we got to Ed, we had to be Blunt. James Blunt, that is. The "You're Beautiful" singer was refreshingly exuberant, playing his best-known (and worst) song about midway through his set. Opening acts don't usually enjoy a full arena, but the place was nearly packed for his performance, and he worked the crowd admirably. Even songs that don't seem on paper like they should work, like Robin Schulz's "OK" (introduced as an EDM track, or simply "dance music, for the old people") were successful. If you only knew the guy from *that* song, like yours truly, you likely came away a freshly anointed fan.

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Opener James Blunt
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
Sheeran took the stage to no fanfare, momentarily catching the crowd by surprise. Clad in jeans and a T-shirt with the word "Hoax," he commented about everything being bigger in Texas before launching into "Castle on the Hill," one of the many hits of the new album. "Erase" came next, a hip-hop number that didn't come together quite as well (Sheeran's rapping is always a mixed bag). It was one of the few comparatively low points in the set, which unsurprisingly leaned heavily on the most recent release, but featured a curveball or two.

Color me surprised that Sheeran's entire setup consisted of a guitar (periodically swapped out), his loop rig, and a mushroom-shaped video setup that alternated shots of the singer and thematic visual accompaniments (and was occasionally nightmarish). For some reason, I assumed he'd have the backing of a full band, and the fact he was able to hold an arena in the palm of his hand for 90 minutes as a solo act with no pyro or retinue of backup dancers is pretty goddamn impressive.

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Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
For anyone who's seen a Bob Schneider solo show, the approach is familiar. Sheeran would spend the first minute or so creating his vocal and instrumental backing loops, then launch into the song with accompanying playback. It's becoming more commonplace as a live music practice, but to my knowledge Sheeran is the only artist to use it at the arena level.

I mentioned his age before, because while it's formidable that someone so young has achieved this kind of success, it's almost more so that he's already as calculating as a decades-long touring veteran. For example, the cheers elicited when he told us we'd beaten Dallas in the decibel category and assured us we were the loudest crowd of the tour so far. A statement that will probably be true until he gets to San Antonio Tuesday.

And a few moments smacked of self-indulgence. "I See Fire," for example, felt like it went as long as one of the Hobbit movies it was written for (with Smaug footage dutifully provided as well). However, to say the crowd didn't care would be an understatement. I wasn't alive during Beatlemania, and I've never been to a so-called "boy band" concert, but Saturday night's shrieking was about as loud as any I've heard. I actually thought there was a guy with a bomb in the rear mezz during "Thinking Out Loud" (which closed out the main set, along with "Sing").

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Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
Turns out it was just somebody proposing to his girlfriend (she said yes).

Sheeran did trot out "Tenerife Sea" ("I don't play this one all the time"), a song from 2014's x ("multiply") he's only performed a handful of dates on the tour. But while Sheeran may be young, there's no way he hadn't timed such impromptu moments down to the minute. From the barely 30-second absence prior to the encore, to reemerging in an Astros jersey, to closing out with "Shape of You" and "You Need Me, I Don't Need You" (from his first album), there wasn't one element of the performance that escaped his control.

He's already selling out 18,000-seat venues, shifting millions of units and appearing in Game of Thrones. You couldn't design a robot with a more efficient entertainment success algorithm. Let's just hope future Sheeran doesn't decide humanity is superfluous to his plans for world domination.

Personal Bias: None, really. More bummed Bob Schneider doesn't play arenas.

The Crowd: Easily the most multi-ethnic, age variable show I've been at the Toyota Center in years.

Overheard In The Crowd: "He's not a good rapper."

Random Notebook Dump: "That SOB totally wore a Cowboys jersey in Dallas last night." [Close, it was a Mavericks one.]

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A couple of Houston "Ed Heads" and their main man.
Photo by Lawrence Elizabeth Knox
Castle on the Hill
The A Team
Don't / New Man
Galway Girl
Feeling Good / I See Fire
Tenerife Sea
Nancy Mulligan
Thinking Out Loud

Shape of You
You Need Me, I Don't Need You
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar