It’s impressive enough for a charismatic guy with a British accent, a pirate’s hat and an acoustic guitar to bring a theater full of excited teenage girls to a frenzy of screams worthy ofJustin Bieber or the Beatles, as Ed Sheeran did on Sunday night.
But at the Nokia Theatre on what the 22-year-old described as his biggest American gig to date (on his birthday, no less), Sheeran achieved a more amazing feat. Using a crowd control method he dubbed “the universal shush,” the supremely talented artist asked this hormonal mass to remain quiet for the softer songs. When he did, as for his inspired rendition of the American folk standard “The Wayfaring Stranger,” the room sounded as empty as a pub on a Monday morning.
You read that correctly. The singer-songwriter-rapper, beat-boxer and redhead best known for his Grammy nominated song “The A-Team” and for his work with Taylor Swift, successfully silenced a crowd full of teens with a traditional folk song.
What’s more, Sheeran instructed them to download all the Nina Simone records they could find, then jumped into a thrilling version of her “Be My Husband.” During a crowd-participatory moment within his encore, he quickly and wittily ran through the plotline of “West Side Story” before dividing the hall into Jets and Sharks. Their response? Panties, bras and stuffed animals rained down on Sheeran throughout the night.
Sheeran is quickly becoming a sensation -- he’s already huge in England -- but that stands to reason. Though young on paper, the singer started self-releasing records while in his mid-teens, delivering clever songs that straddled folk and hip-hop, banged out on a little acoustic guitar and a digital loop maker that allows him to layer his voice and build instrumental rhythms as he’s performing. Since then, he’s danced among worlds while building a fanbase and perfecting his performances.
Yes, his presence coincides with the rise of folk-based acts such as the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, which could be a deal-breaker for some. But few others can cite a resume that features work with Southern rapper Yelawolf, London grime superstar Wiley and international pop superstar Swift -- and in concert quote both Eric Clapton’s “Layla” and Tupac Shakur’s “California Love,” as Sheeran did.
Supremely self-assured, funny, smart, with a ringing, pitch-perfect tone and a rich voice, Sheeran owned the Nokia from the moment he arrived. “For the next two hours, you are the gospel choir of Los Angeles,” he said early in the set as he pushed through “Give Me Love,” the climactic final song on his self-titled major label debut.
The crowd took this assignment to heart, and so did Sheeran, who conducted the 7,000-plus fans in singalongs with supreme confidence. There was no question that he was in charge; he ran the concert as if he were the most awesome counselor at a summer camp.
That Sheeran has won the affections of the prettier gender stands to reason: His lyrics are mostly focused on understanding women and his desire for them, which he describes in lyrics that paint him as a bad boy with a good heart, open and honest. “I’ll pick your feet off the ground, and I’ll never let you down,” he sang on “Grade 8.” “My eyes are a river filler/This drink is a liver killer.”
On “Lego House,” he featured both his skills as a vocalist and a rapper, alternately singing sweet falsetto and stuttering phrases in a London patois.
Our young hero has yet to fully mature as a lyricist, though. The song features cliched lines about staying warm during cold nights and offering to keep a lover “sheltered from the storm that’s raging on.” More convincing -- and beloved -- was “The A Team,” a minor-key lyrical tragedy about a crack-addicted prostitute.
It’s tempting enough to dismiss Sheeran. He’s young, cute and has written hits for Brit boy band One Direction. Too, Sheeran dueted with Swift for “Everything Has Changed,” a song they co-wrote for her recent album “Red,” and he’ll be the opening act on her upcoming “Red Tour.” His cult-like devotion from his young fanbase might be off-putting to many different varieties of snobs, as well.
But based on his performance at the Nokia, Sheeran feels to me like a lifetime artist, a musician so obviously born to perform and entertain that his promise seems boundless. Yes, he’s still finding his voice as a lyricist, but so was a young Bruce Springsteen on “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.”
No, that’s not to compare Sheeran’s debut to that of the Boss, even if the potential is similar. Like Springsteen, when he walks onstage for a show, Sheeran on Sunday commanded attention from the start and earned it triumphantly.