“These next songs I’m pretty sure you all know…and I’m pretty sure your grandma knows.”
There aren’t many individuals who’d be able to claim they spent their birthday playing to a stadium upwards of 50,000 people. Internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran however, can.
Not even an hour after the gates to the promised land that was Suncorp Stadium had opened, chairs were laden with fans sporting all sorts of party paraphernalia: cone hats, homemade posters, and even a plastic kazoo or two. The theme of the night was celebration, and the energy that pulsated between the tight rows continued right through the sets of Coodjinburra artist Budjerah (featured on a remix of Sheeran’s 2Step) and Maisie Peters.
Two-time ARIA award-winning artist, the 20-year-old Budjerah took to the stage with an eclectic collection of R&B soul and pop melodies that nestled comfortably behind the clear, rich timbre of his voice. Rising English pop-rock star Maisie Peters, however, blasted a series of sing (or scream)-along tracks from her recent album You Signed Up For This (2021). In a tribute to Australia, she then performed Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn – much to the surprise (and delight) of the crowd.
By the time darkness had fallen, the stage had completely transformed. Sure, Budjerah and Peters had just rocked the platform, but now there were lights – scarlet lights surrounded by well-placed smoke machines that bled into the open obsidian skies above. A red mist of sorts had settled in the air, and for the first time, we saw the stage not as an agent of mere function in this spectacle but as a character.
At some point, everyone realised that dangling above the stage was another colossal screen (also circular) because one minute, the stage was there, and the next, a four-minute countdown was on, and the screen had descended over the platform.
When it finally rose, in the centre of the stage in all his glory stood Sheeran, dressed in all black. He would’ve been downright identical to the rest of the stage crew if not for the word ‘BRISBANE’ written in multi-coloured letters across his shirt. Or for the tell-tale flaming red of his hair.
Strumming the high-flying opening riff of Tides, the first track from his 2021 album =, the stadium came alive and launched into an immediate, hearty rendition of the anthemic record. There’s a reason it was track #1 on the album and track #1 on the setlist, and that is the overwhelming feeling of hope that punctures your gut when you hear it. It’s the sound of change and excitement and faith and fear – it’s the sound of life.
If Tides was the feeling of a countryside road trip with your favourite people, then the second number of the night, BLOW (originally featuring Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars), was the feeling of that same road trip if you switched out the car for a rocket launcher – and that’s not even a stretch considering the stage exploded into a cavalcade of fireworks and pyrotechnics.
The gritty fuzz pedal so intrinsic to the atmosphere of 70s rock n’ roll melded into a short and punchy riff that later transitioned into a tight, colourful electric solo which guitarist Will Curtis turned up to 11 and blitzed. A Led Zeppelin meets Audioslave fever dream that was so vivid one could almost imagine the very basement in Nashville where Sheeran, Stapleton, and Mars originally wrote the demo.
After practically leaping around the stage, it was at this point Sheeran switched to his trusty acoustic. Breathless, he laughed: “Every time I come to Brisbane, I get too excited and lose my voice on the first night… it’s a Friday night come on!”
The rest of the band – who were all situated on the metal spider legs on opposite sides of the stadium – left Sheeran to do what he does best: Tell stories. After a world-class performance of live looping his own sounds in I’m A Mess, Sheeran went on to introduce Shivers by demonstrating how he creates different loops in real time. A few harmonising riffs, some guitar thumps and a shot of some synths later, his song cocktail was ready. And the world turned into a disco.
Everyone danced in their seats, next to their seats, or on their seats, while Sheeran himself seemed to opt for the easier alternative. Why walk and dance around the stage when the stage can do it for you? And thus, the rotating stage made its debut and continued to glide him around the platform even as a fan-favourite track from + (2011), The A Team, began to play.
The following two songs, Castle On The Hill and a mash of Don’t and Blackstreet’s No Diggity, only perpetuated the stadium disco. The screens all around bloomed into a gradient of orange and yellow reminiscent of a typical Australian sunset, while the pyrotechnics made yet another guest appearance at the end of Don’t as the crowd sang the closing lines back to Sheeran.
After the last of the flames had disappeared, a rather apt transition into I See Fire was made, and all Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit fans breathed in a collective gasp. In the first verse, Sheeran sang completely on his own out into the void with no other music, and the echo was so powerful it felt as if he were standing atop the ridges of Erebor and crying out deep into the valleys below.
As the loops began to build, so did the show production. Bright lights that were barnacled onto the spiders’ legs stained the surrounding haze crimson and turned the air into the breath of a dragon. Sheeran’s face appeared on the screen inside spheres of molten rock that began to melt away as he looped multiple harmonies of himself over and over until the song reached its crescendo, and he was left alone again at the end, singing in a powerfully painful moment “I hope that you’ll remember me.”
Making its live debut in Brisbane, next was Visiting Hours – Sheeran’s raw, heartbreaking tribute to Australian music industry legend Michael Gudinski, led by Ashton Miranda on keys. If anyone in the crowd had lost someone – and everyone has, in their life, lost something – this song’s message is simple. It’s ‘I understand.’
There is the ugly pain and peace of grief wrapped up in the neat, beautiful bundle that is this song. It didn’t feel like Sheeran was on a stage anymore, but rather sitting right next to you. If anyone had walked into the concert feeling they were alone, they weren’t walking out the same way.
In need of an apparent reminder that this was, in fact, his birthday and should continue to be a night of incandescent joy, Sheeran called back his band – including Mark Pusey on drums – who then proceeded to launch into a four-song pop medley, “Of some songs that are collaborations that I hope you know” – Own It/Peru/Beautiful People/I Don’t Care. Sheeran, who had been traipsing insistently across the stage, paused for a moment before grinning: “And if you don’t, it’s going to be a long five minutes.”
As expected, a spontaneous birthday chant surfaced from somewhere in the nosebleeds, to which Sheeran suggested we all take out our phone flashlights and pretend they were candles so he could blow them out. A small moment out of many, but for a brief minute, it was wonderful to forget that we were at a concert at all. Just a group of strangers wishing someone else a happy birthday, wishing someone would have a wonderful night.
“These songs I’m pretty sure you all know…and I’m pretty sure your grandma knows,” was how he introduced the next three songs Thinking Out Loud, Love Yourself, and Sing. “…And if you don’t know the words, Brisbane, you’re at the wrong concert.” Not that he had any reason to worry; the entire stadium collectively almost burst their lungs singing those falsetto harmonies in Sing, sampled from The Rolling Stones’ Miss You.
When explaining Perfect, Sheeran said, “It’s my most important song on record.” And if that couple on the stairs at the end of their row slow dancing like no one was watching isn’t proof of that, then I don’t know what is.
No ordinary person would be able to hold the attention of an entire stadium with just a voice and a guitar, but Ed Sheeran is no ordinary person. Except that he is, in the way we all are, and that’s the magic of his music. Sometimes a guitar and a voice are all you need to puncture the heart when it comes down to it. Not every song needs to be anthemic to be an anthem or be sonically unreal to belong in a stadium.
Sheeran’s songs have made such an impact over the years because he invites us to be ordinary, to be human. He’s on a stage on his own, singing about life experiences, but what he’s really saying to us is, “Come and be human with me.”
And we do.