Part of the whole pop music experience is the synergy with the fans. That’s a big “duh,” right? All artists experience it – we experience it ourselves here at Austin City Limits. For all the great fan interaction we see at every taping, however, nothing compares to an Ed Sheeran show. The Suffolk native appeared on the eve of the release of x, his highly anticipated second album, with a setlist full of new tunes and favorites. From the evidence of the British sensation’s first ACL taping, he may very well have the most loyal, enthusiastic fans in recent memory.
The chart-topping, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter began with “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” from his landmark debut LP +. He started by using his foot-controlled loop station to create a groove, using his guitar as a percussion instrument as much as a melodic one. Adding mouth and breath-generated percussion and a barrage of rapped and sung lyrics, he generated a near-perfectly balanced meld of folk and hip-hop, appropriately enough for a tunesmith deeply influenced by Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. Once the groove was established, Sheeran put his guitar down to exhort the crowd to clap and sing along. The audience needed little encouragement, eager for call and response before he even arrived at that point in the song. By the time he had the house lights brought up so he could snap a cell phone pic of his congregation, the energy in the room had shot into the stratosphere. And this was only the first song!
From then on, whether he was building more grooving loops on “Don’t,” “Give Me Love” or a fiery take on Nina Simone’s “Be My Husband” or breaking hearts and inducing tears with the stripped-down balladry of “Lego House,” “Thinking Out Loud” and the moving “All of the Stars,” from the soundtrack to the hit film The Fault of Our Stars, Sheeran and the crowd were in it together. The energy bounced back and forth, from performer to audience and back again, never faltering. Even when Sheeran sang the traditional folk tune “The Parting Glass” and led it into the dark “The A Team,” a cautionary tale of addiction, the fans were right there with him, singing along, hanging on his every gesture.
Sheeran ended with, of course, “Sing,” the relentlessly upbeat single from x that required, even demanded, audience participation. At his request the crowd kept up the wordless chorus even after he left the stage. That the audience’s energy never dissipated during this vocal coda proved their dedication to Sheeran’s vision. It’s going to make a great episode, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on PBS.