The “X” factor. It’s that hard-to-isolate quality which eludes most mortals. Can’t be bought, can’t be taught. Ed Sheeran knows a lot about the “X” factor. A virtual nobody just a few years ago, Sheeran is now filling some of the world’s biggest venues with his own tunes (and the odd cover). He packed-out Wembley Stadium for three shows in July, as though he was winning a bet with himself.
On Saturday night, the British singer began his Australasian run with a concert at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium. On the same evening in Sydney, Sheeran’s good friend Taylor Swift began her own national stadium tour (both treks are presented by Michael Gudinski’s Frontier Touring). The mighty Swift is on her fifth studio album. Sheeran has just two full-length sets to his name.
For Sheeran, perseverance (and ambition) has paid off. He has toured Australia five times, his most recent trek just earlier this year when he played to arenas (and 190,000 people) across Australia and New Zealand. When he collected an ARIA Award last week in Sydney, he recalled an earlier visit where he performed to a handful of people. Now he’s playing stadiums, 10,000 miles from home, with a guitar, loop pedals, some dazzling digital effects and no backing band. The last time a solo male artist played stadiums in this part of the world with so little firepower was the late John Denver, who did so back in 1994.
Put it down to Sheeran’s “X” factor. After sitting at No. 1 for six weeks, his second album X ended 2014 as the year’s best-seller in Australia. It’s also the best-selling album in Australia this year.
Sheeran opened his Brisbane date with “I’m a Mess,” “Lego House” and “Drunk” in quick succession. He wasn’t overawed by the sight of 46,000 screaming fans. “My job over the next two hours is to entertain you, your job is to be entertained.” And so it was, as Sheeran triggered loops and effects from his arsenal of pedals. “You guys are so loud,” he said, as you’d expect from a stadium veteran. He urged the crowd to “dance like an idiot, sing out of tune.” Many obliged him.
There’s no playbook for Sheeran’s success. Sure, he has friends in high places (that’s you, Taylor). But there’s no faking talent, not while so exposed before so many. His songs resonate with the young, and not so young. He looks like a normal bloke, a decent chap. We know he was an awkward kid because we saw him grow up in the charming lifetime-in-three minutes video for his top 10 U.S. hit “Photograph,” which he played tonight.
He also tackled “Bloodstream,” “Tenerife Sea,” “Kiss Me” and “Thinking Out Loud,” with its fairytale ballroom dancing video splashed on the big screens. And there were a handful of covers, including the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her.”
He imbues a sense of self-deprecation (“thank you, whoever bought those four copies or X whatever”) and self-awareness. “I never imagined I’d be standing on a stage in a stadium in my own country, let alone this one.” This, after roughly two years promoting X, is “technically my last stop.”
Perhaps the wait for another won’t take too long. Sheeran told the Brisbane crowd he’d been working on another album, a project which has its own special downside. “I took two months off to make the next record. I didn’t know how much weight you sweat off (while performing). I’ve put on two stone in the last two months. I think I’ve sweated a lot of that out tonight.”
Brisbane’s sub-tropical climate brings with it powerful storms during the hottest months. Sheeran dodged a proper downpour which arrived 24 hours later. Nice timing. Midway through his set, a gentle rain fell. The host turned it into a bonding exercise. “The stage is dripping, you’re getting soaked. I’m getting soaked too. Treat it as good atmosphere.”
The crowd soaked it all up, and by the time Sheeran completed his final encore with “Sing,” the lead single from X, he’d achieved what he promised. An “X” factor like this doesn’t show up too often.
Sheeran’s tour continues Wednesday at Perth’s NIB Stadium, then visits Melbourne (for two shows), Sydney, and wraps-up Dec. 12 at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland, New Zealand.
Ed Sheeran’s setlist from Suncorp Stadium, Nov. 28, 2015
1. I’m a Mess
2. Lego House
4. Take It Back / Superstition / Ain’t No Sunshine
8. Tenerife Sea
9. Don’t / Loyal / No Diggity / Nina
10. Feeling Good (Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley cover)
11. I See Fire
12. I Was Made to Love Her (Stevie Wonder cover)
13. Kiss Me
14. Thinking Out Loud
15. The A Team
16. You Need Me, I Don’t Need You / Layla / In Da Club / Know Yourself