And by “Ed Sheeran,” we don’t mean, “Ed Sheeran and an army of backup musicians, and maybe a few dancers,” as you might assume with a pop concert at our NFL stadium.
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Literally, Ed Sheeran — and only Ed Sheeran — took the stage with an acoustic guitar, in a massive space typically reserved for Nashville’s most elaborate, bombastic shows.
For the next two hours, the 27-year-old British singer-songwriter stood alone with that guitar in hand, a microphone before him and a “loop pedal” (we"ll explain) at his feet.
It’s a setup that’s no more complicated than what you might find from a songwriter in-the-round, or a busker on Lower Broadway. But even in Music City, no one’s ever tried to take that approach for a full headlining set at the home of the Titans.
Well, Sheeran pulled it off on Saturday. And he came pretty close to selling out the stadium, too, as just a handful of sections in the upper levels sat unfilled.
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Much of his crowd stayed on its feet for those two hours, singing along to a setlist that explored his decade-long reign as an unlikely pop star, from “The A Team” to “Shape Of You.”
“This is the dream, isn’t it?” Sheeran said after his opening number, “Castle On the Hill.”
Though he hails from the tiny town of Framlingham in Suffolk, England, Saturday’s show was an odd sort of homecoming for Sheeran. He briefly lived in Hendersonville in 2013, in between stints opening for Taylor Swift on tour.
“On my first night here, I went to Walmart and I bought some pajama bottoms, not knowing they were the Tennessee Titans pajama bottoms,” he said with a chuckle. “Ever since then, I’ve kind of followed the team.”
“This is my favorite city in the entire United States,” he added. “I’m so happy to be back. I find when you play shows in Nashville, because like 50 percent of the audience is musically inclined, whenever you ask the audience to sing back, it’s always, like, perfectly in tune and in four-part harmonies.”
But after buttering them up, Sheeran didn’t let his audience off easy. Several times between songs, he urged them to let go and sing “loudly and out of tune.” He even sympathized with the “boyfriends and super-dads” who didn’t really want to be there.
He was also in charge of striking up his own one-man band, via that custom-designed loop pedal.
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The technology allows him pound out a quick rhythm on his guitar, which is recorded and immediately played back in an infinite loop. From there, he can add as many layers of strums, riffs and background vocals as he wants.
The results aren’t always seamless, but when he nails it - like he did with a crescendo of vocal harmonies and guitar pounds on “Bloodstream” - it’s an undeniable thrill.
It’s also worth noting that the looping technology is the only area where Sheeran ever really faltered. He’s a powerful, expressive vocalist and a nimble guitarist, and that came sharply into focus in the night"s final stretch of “sing-alongs.” That included “Thinking Out Loud,” “Perfect” and “Sing,” with the audience’s volume exponentially growing.
Sheeran re-emerged for the encore in a Titans jersey, and plunked on a keyboard for the first and only time on “Shape of You.” The night ended with the skittering pseudo-rap of “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You." Whoever Sheeran is addressing in that tune, it certainly wasn"t his Nashville audience.