Just how mushy-sweet was Ed Sheeran’s sold-out Xcel Energy Center concert in St. Paul on Saturday night?
As the redheaded, blue-hearted British folk-pop star sang his 2015 love song “Tenerife Sea” midway through the show — the tune with the refrain, “I’m so in love, so in love, so in love,” etc. — a burst of unprompted cheering broke out toward the back of the arena. There, cellphone lights lit up a dude getting down on one knee to propose to his girl.
“I assume she said yes,” Sheeran interjected from the stage without stopping the tune or missing a beat.
Clearly, this wasn’t the singer’s first mid-song ring reveal. It wouldn’t even be the last proposal during Saturday’s performance. The same thing happened again a few songs later during “Perfect,” another hushed ballad screaming to become a first-dance wedding staple.
With impossibly sweet moments like those and Sheeran’s undeniable aw-shucks charm, it was hard to hate the 95-minute concert. But there were many facets of the show that were less-than-perfect.
As if we weren’t going to hear enough tender, touchy love songs by a soft-voiced British strummer, Sheeran recruited “You’re Beautiful” hitmaker James Blunt to open his tour. With a hopelessly sleepy, mostly weepy set that found his big hit strategically thrown in the middle for a NoDoz dosage, Blunt made Sheeran look like Springsteen.
Four months into a tour behind his third record, “÷” (aka “Divide”), the St. Paul date was Sheeran’s second time headlining Xcel Center in front of a packed audience and his fourth time playing there in as many years, going back to opening gigs with old pal/benefactor Taylor Swift.
He made light of his frequency early in the show when he happily reported the arena’s staff gave him another custom-made hockey puck to mark the occasion: “I have them lined up at home,” he said of his prior three pucks.
A familiar sameness plagued Sheeran’s performance. The 26-year-old song man is still touring without a backing band, using loop-recording techniques and an acoustic guitar for his only accompaniment on stage. It’s a good gimmick that he masterfully employs, but on Saturday it felt like he was working it too hard.
During the opening song, “Castle on the Hill” — part of a montage of new songs dropped early into the set — Sheeran broke a string and had to change guitars, but was able to play through thanks to his recorded loops. He got all loopy again two songs later in “The A Team,” though in that case the 15,000 fans sang and clapped along better than any machine could.
Perhaps aware that his one-man-band shtick is getting predictable, Ed Sheeran brought an elaborate, towering, hourglass-shaped video screen to add some pizazz. He also was wise to branch out and try something new musically on Saturday.
But rapping? Really?
In two new songs near the start of the set, “Eraser” and the (gasp!) cuss-word-spiked “New Man,” the cuddly cute folkie dropped rhymes like a wannabe member of Wu-Tang Clan. Of course, Wuss-Tang Clan was more like it. Sheeran’s rapping is just a hopelessly lame combo worsened by the fact that his beats are all slapped out on his acoustic guitar like a drunken frat boy trying to impress the freshmen girls.
Not that extra musicians would have made much of a difference in those songs, but it really is time for the solitary superstar to bring a backing band along on tour.
A group might have added some oomph and clarity to more up-tempo songs such as “Bloodstream” and the new one “Galway Girl.” Live accompaniment especially would have helped the latest megahit, “Shape of You,” which felt like a limp encore climax. Or at least a band would have helped drown out some of the awkwardly horn-doggy lyrics (“Last night you were in my room / And now my bedsheets smell like you”).
Any extra musicians could just step aside for what was still the most potent part of the concert: a run of his most softhearted love songs played mostly loop-free three-quarters of the way through the set, including “Photograph,” “Perfect” and “Thinking Out Loud.” He cockily introduced the latter tune by saying, “If I was going to propose to someone in my show, I’d do it to this one.”
Dude is just asking for it next time.
Here is Sheeran’s set list from Saturday:
Castle On The Hill
The A Team
Don’t / New Man
Feeling Good / I See Fire
Thinking Out Loud
Shape of You
You Need Me I Don’t Need You