At Los Angeles’ Staples Center Thursday night (Aug. 10), opening act James Blunt told the joke he probably recites every night on tour. While the rest of us were watching headliner Ed Sheeran, he said, “I’ll be backstage thinking, ‘A loop pedal — damn! It’s so much cheaper than hiring a band.’” Personnel expenses and HR difficulties probably don’t have a lot to do with Sheeran choosing to be a literal solo act, but it’s still possible to find delight in the irony that his may be the only arena-rock tours in history where the roadies’ primary job between sets is to clear everything off the stage, not fill it. The musicians’ unions must still be praying nobody else gets any ideas.
Sheeran almost had some other ideas himself, though. Three years ago, with his sophomore album about to come out as he stood on the cusp of graduating to superstardom, the British singer quietly let it slip that maybe the whole one-man-band thing was getting played out, and maybe he’d actually take a band out in the future. Flash ahead to 2017, and he clearly thought better of that threat in the meantime. Smart guy. What once seemed even to Sheeran like it could devolve into shtick is really at the core of his personal power as a performer. He shouldn’t give up this conceit up any sooner than he should play Samson and shave off his ginger ‘do for no good reason.
Of course, he wouldn’t be filling Staples for three consecutive nights if the records he makes — which are, of course, fully manned — didn’t sound pretty good, too. They do, although the results can be inconsistent, as he bounces between producers and styles. Everything is more of a piece in concert, where some of the ballads have more ballast freed from borderline-sappy arrangements, and where “Galway Girl” is less cheesy stripped of the Irish tin whistle that makes it just a bit too on the nose on record. Everything involves Sheeran just doing live overdubs on himself, sampling his own guitar strumming, percussive poking, and two-to-four-part harmonies. The slightly augmented exception is this year’s worldwide No. 1 single. “The Shape of You,” in he does have to also trigger that synth riff that makes everyone around the globe think their cell phones are going off.
Sheeran wisely doesn’t call much attention anymore to his looping technique. As wildly effective as it continues to be, some of the highlights of the 95-minute set included the few selections where he left the pedals entirely alone and just played the acoustic guitar, McCabe’s-style, like “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here,” the night’s choice for the Song No. 10 wild-card slot, and “Perfect,” in which pedals were replaced by banks of rose petals on the video screens. It doesn’t get much more subdued than “Happier,” the simplest song off his recent “Divide” album, and also the best.
Amid all these deeply earnest moments, there are also more-or-less acoustic interpretations of some of his forays he’s made into a more electronically stylized sound on record, and the more sexualized lyrics that usually accompany them. If you ever thought that “Don’t,” from the second album, and “New Man,” from the latest one, were pretty much the same song, well, so does Sheeran, as it turns out; he’s using this tour to combine them into the world’s most seamless medley. “The Shape of You” marks the one time he really sounds like he wants to recreate a complicated production as much as possible, which is okay, since the hit’s sexual conquistador bravado would really seem silly if he sang it hootenanny style.
The crowd at Staples Center opening night was notably devoid of unaccompanied males, which doesn’t seem to be any damper on ticket sales. His sex appeal covers a lot of bases: He’s an unabashed sentimentalist who also has a strong bit of the rogue in him, which is by now obvious to the 100 percent of the population that by now has burned out on the tune most of them still know as “that ‘I’m in love with your body’ song.” Do you favor good guys or bad boys? Sheeran’s got you covered both ways — besides being a one-man band, he’s a one-man legion of boyfriends, too.
Special credit for the tour’s success is due to show director and lighting designer Mark Cunniffe, who’s come up with a massive set destined to impress even any bored significant others in the audience. The backdrop hovering behind and over Sheehan is a bank of 20 big screens in the vague shape of a mushroom cloud (no prescient North Korean homage intended, presumably). Just when you think every kind of touring design there is or can be, this is one of the more imaginatively shaped and utilized setups of recent years.
As an opening act, Blunt addressed his place in things with good humor, announcing that “I’m gonna do one more you don’t know before the one you do know,” meaning, 2005’s “You’re Beautiful.” Considering the demographic, he quipped, “Realistically, I’m told that most of you here were conceived to it.” The way in which Blunt suddenly interrupts a long run of deeply sincere love songs with a bit of waggish humor or, yes, roguish sexuality reminds you of a certain someone. And then it hits you why he makes such an appropriate opening act: Blunt was Ed Sheeran before Ed Sheeran was Ed Sheeran.