The last time Ed Sheeran visited Austin City Limits, he was a pop star. For his second appearance tonight, he returned at the top of his game, and arguably the biggest pop star in the world. The massive international success of the British singer-songwriter’s third album ÷ spread his gospel far and wide, and it showed in our rapturous audience.
Taking the stage in an ACL t-shirt to thunderous applause, the one-man marvel, with just his guitar and a loop pedal, jump-started the evening with “Castle On the Hill,” the folk-rocking top 10 hit that announced the arrival of ÷. He followed with “Eraser,” one of his patented mashups of folk-pop and hip hop that found him bounding across the stage, looping his guitars and vocals into ever-more intricate musical webs. After singing the praises of Texas music, food and alcohol, Sheeran went back to “the one that kicked things off for me,” namely his breakthrough hit “The A Team.” Encouraging the eager audience to sing at the tops of their lungs, he then launched into “Don’t,” an early hit that rides a hard groove and works well for call and response. Sheeran returned to the new album for “Happier,” a heart-rending ballad perfect for pulling your loved one closer, glad you’re not the song’s subject.
The ginger tunesmith dug back into 2014’s x for “Bloodstream,” slathering the harrowing tale of a drug experience in echo, energy and live overdubbing. Then Sheeran essayed one of his concert centerpieces, a theatrical and slowly unfolding medley of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and his own “I See Fire,” the atmospheric theme to the fantasy film The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. After that epic, he brought the mood back from middle-earth with “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here,” a tender love song, and “Supermarket Flowers,” a lovely number about the death of his beloved grandmother – both eschewing his usual penchant for looping and in-concert singalongs. The mood skyrocketed back up with “Photograph,” a song of devotion built into a choir of Sheerans that unexpectedly incorporated Austin’s own Sixth Street into its lyrics. He kept the ecstatic vibe going with “Perfect,” a song he described as “my favorite song I’ve ever written.”
Heading into the home stretch, Sheeran paid tribute to his grandparents’ love story with “Nancy Mulligan,” a ÷ song that brilliantly incorporated the folk of their Irish heritage into his signature beat-driven pop. Donning an electric guitar instead of his typical acoustic, he then played his Grammy-winning, chart-topping single “Thinking Out Loud,” joined on every verse by the rapt crowd. He paid tribute to that receptiveness by bringing up an audience member, complimenting her on her consistent dancing throughout the performance. Which was an appropriate segue into “Shape of You,” his current, dancehall-infused hipswinging smash that made the crowd go wild. Sheeran ended the show with an epic high-energy take on “You Don’t Me, I Don’t You,” practically a distillation of the folk/pop/hip-hop hybrid that’s made him a global superstar. It was a magnificent ending to a spectacular show, and we can’t wait for you to see it when the epic hour kicks off our 43rd season October 7 on PBS.