BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
Over the years, the lighting rigs have become fancier, the stages more expansive.
But at its core, an Ed Sheeran concert is still about that lone guy and his guitar looping pedal commanding a sold-out arena on the strength of sincere, vivid songs and an unpretentious personality.
Returning to Atlanta – where he last played in September 2015 – for the first of two sold-out shows at Infinite Energy Arena Friday night, Sheeran dashed onstage in his uniform of dark jeans and black T-shirt and steamrolled through the most meaningful song in his ever-expanding catalog, the Springsteen-esque “Castle on the Hill.”
Not only is the anthem a musical triumph and perfect opener, but it was accompanied by gorgeous video on Sheeran’s breathtaking stage.
Even though he oozes talent and can captivate a room of 11,000 people with only his folk-pop-rock songs, Sheeran now has the means to give fans a bit of razzamatazz and has done so in a smart, modern way.
Vertical video reels streamed behind him, broadcasting neon symbols (“The A Team”), fire-breathing dragons (“I See Fire”) and a cool effect of live Sheeran video being flipped like pages of a book (“Happier”). The triangular platforms of lights that tilted and lowered between the screens never detracted, only enhanced Sheeran’s constant movement on stage as he bounced in his sneakers and hopped atop monitors.
“Being back in the stage of Georgia makes me really happy,” he said.
The crowd – primarily teenage and female – returned the love throughout the show, screaming whenever he swigged from numerous bottles of water and dutifully lighting up the room with their cell phones during an empathetic read of “The A Team.”
Sheeran, 26, also assured fans that his claim that this was the loudest U.S. audience on his “Divide” tour so far – it started in America in late June – was true.
Good luck, Saturday night crowd!
Sheeran has perfected the use of his loop pedal and used it to practical effect – an easy, thumping background – on the jealously fueled “Don’t/New Man” combo and to a stunning degree on “Bloodstream.”
As the crowd bounced their arms in the air, Sheeran created a backbeat from his syncopated thwacks against the body of his guitar and harmonized with himself to construct a one-man symphony.
He also turned the arena into a foot-stomping pub with the lyrically twisty “Galway Girl” and hit some impressive notes on his deeply felt rendition of Nina Simon’s “Feelin’ Good” – a live inclusion for years – and a sweet, prayerful “Tenerife Sea.”
Even well-played-out radio ballads “Photograph” and “Thinking Out Loud” – which have populated many a wedding and proposal, as on this night – sounded fresher in a live setting.
Sheeran’s “Divide” tour is a laudable example of musical efficiency, and even though his good-humored tour mate James Blunt travels with a four-piece band, he, too, knows the value of a durable melody.
Taking the stage promptly at 7:30 p.m., fellow Brit Blunt used his 40-minute set to concentrate on songs from his latest album, “The Afterlove.”
“I know you didn’t buy tickets to see me,” he quipped. “I’m using you.”
Blunt’s voice sounded in its prime as he unveiled the gently percolating “Heartbeat” while playing guitar, then moved to piano for the ballad “Don’t Give Me Those Eyes.”
A good-natured fellow who hasn’t forgotten why most people in the venue still remembered his name, Blunt joked, “I’ll play one more song you don’t know, and then I’ll play that one song you DO know.”
He was referring, of course, to “You’re Beautiful,” his overplayed smash from 2005, that, gloppy as it still is, shimmered with a livelier spark live.
Blunt paced his set well, escalating the tempo on the electronica-lite “OK” and reminding us just how underrated he is with the charming “Bonfire Heart” and “1973.”
As that song wound down, Blunt sprinted to the top of his shaky upright piano to take a few photos of the crowd as the band continued to play behind him – a brave man for sure.
He may have relinquished arena headlining status to his younger buddy for the moment, but Blunt demonstrated that he still possesses plenty of fire.