Wednesday night’s sold-out show had teenage hearts aflutter for the British singer-songwriter
Ed Sheeran hit the stage at Little Caesars Arena at 8:30 p.m. sharp on Wednesday, and by 8:31 he already had the sold-out audience eating out of the palm of his hand.
He’s just that kind of a performer. The 26-year-old Brit is a pop superstar who worked his way up through the ranks the old way, singing in pubs and coffeehouses before graduating to clubs, theaters and now arenas. Even at the arena level, he had to earn his keep: Wednesday’s show came roughly three years to the day after he played to a less-than full house at the Palace of Auburn Hills. But there’s no stopping the Sheeran train now: He’s one of pop’s biggest performers — he’s Spotify’s most-streamed artist — and Wednesday’s concert was one of the hottest tickets on Little Caesars Arena’s young schedule.
The striking thing about Sheeran is he’s a performer armed only with an acoustic guitar and a fancy loop pedal at his feet. The guy’s his own band, his own backup singer and his own hype man, a true one-man show. He manned the stage alone on Wednesday, save for one song where he was joined by a sideman on piano. Otherwise it was all Sheeran for 95 minutes, and he had no problem handling the crowd by his lonesome.
“Detroit, how you feeling tonight?” asked Sheeran, dressed casually in jeans and a black T-shirt, after the opener, “Castle on the Hill.” “I have the day off tomorrow, so we’re going to lose our voices tonight.”
He led the crowd — skewed toward females in their teens and 20s — in a non-stop singalong through 17 songs, a healthy selection from his latest album “÷” and at one point dipping back to “Tenerife Sea,” which he introduced by saying it’s a song “I don’t really play that much anymore.”
His production was towering, a mass of video screens in the shape of the front end of an atomic bomb explosion. Spread across them were images of Sheeran, emojis, starry nights, underwater scenes, whatever fit the mood, and it gave what could have been a very stripped down, simple show the feeling of a big event.
Sheeran would begin each song by strumming a riff on his acoustic guitar, recording it using the foot pedals on the floor, looping it back through the PA, and adding layers of sounds one at a time. He would add a bass line, a drum part, backing vocals, what have you, until he had a full-bodied sound, all done through live manipulation. And the process was so seamless that he never drew attention to it, nor would he think to. It’s all second nature to him at this point.
But none of it would matter if the songs weren’t there. These are songs and lyrics that connect with people because they’re felt on a purely emotional level. These are songs about young love and heartbreak and life lessons that could be sung at campsites around a fire. They just happen to be presented at an arena level, but Sheeran is a talented enough performer to keep the intimacy with his fans even in a huge room. (And he’s done it in bigger rooms, too; he pulled it off at Ford Field when opening for Taylor Swift in 2013.)
He was chatty between songs, talking up the new arena — his was just the second concert at Little Caesars Arena following Kid Rock’s six show opening stint — and egging on fans to lose themselves in the music.
“I will give you 100 percent of me if you give me 100 percent of you,” he said following “The A Team,” during which the arena lit up with the lights from 15,000 or so cell phones.
He’s also been through the fire enough times that he knows how to work on the fly. During “Nancy Mulligan” he busted a guitar string but kept his cool; in no time, his assistant presented him with a backup guitar, he swapped it out and never missed a beat. Seamless.
For his two-song encore, Sheeran drove through this year’s smash “Shape of You” and a pounding, caustic “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” complete with a rap verse. He was sporting a Detroit Red Wings jersey with the No. 17 and “Sheeran” on the back as he closed out the evening. If the Red Wings can create as much joy as Sheeran, the new building will be in great shape.