Ed Sheeran is doing what could reasonably be considered a series of “underplay” shows this week, mostly for winners of radio contests, including appearances at New York’s Empire State Building and Irving Plaza. Before he headed east, the pop superstar got his very intimate mini-tour underway with a hour-long show for SiriusXM subscribers at the Belasco Theatre, the smallest and most club-like of the downtown L.A. historic venues that are currently open for concerts.
The venue suited him well in everything but his fame level, at which point it stands out as a colossal mismatch. Sheeran can and does fill the nearby Staples Center with a one-man show very similar to the one he was doing here, but at the Belasco, without the multi-million-dollar sets and lighting design, he seemed very much in his element, as an acoustic guitar-slinger who’s inclined to get loopy with pedals and layering effects. He may be the only star alive whose show would go over equally well at the Rose Bowl or McCabe’s, without any actual musical changes, so the audience of about a thousand relished the chance to see him do what comes naturally sans big screens or binoculars.
Five of the 11 songs he played were from his October release, “=,” and a sixth was a song even fresher than that, his just-released duet with Elton John, “Merry Christmas,” tipping the balance of the setlist for SiriusXM/Pandora “Small Stage Series” appearance slightly into the new.
“The first time I ever played ‘Bad Habits’ was live in front of about 6 million people. And it didn’t go that well. But it was a start,” Sheeran warned, by way of introduction to a different song from the new album. “This is a song I played once before, and I will mess it up, but that’s the joy of it.” He then launched into “2Step,” or at least an attempt at it. “I fucked it up,” he admitted after putting some effort into creating the loops that would be the undertow of his solo rendition (not all of them audible to the audience). “I’m gonna play that song again every night, and by the time we tour again…” It may not take quite that long to nail it. On second try, as you can see in the video provided by SiriusXM to Variety, below, he got it perfect.
Not to be confused with “Perfect.” That was in the set, too, though. Although it’s such a wedding song that fans might want to believe that he wrote it while taking a brief break from a romantic clinch, he admitted, “This song came about because I had time to kill.” As he explained it, a friend of his had asked him to record a theme song for a television show, and after booking a studio and engineer and cutting it to his satisfaction in a highly efficient 20 minutes, he realized that with “the day that I paid for. I should use the time wisely. I think I used it wisely.” The audience screamed assent.
Sheeran was getting his first taste of audience feedback on some of the newer songs, like “Overpass Graffiti,” saying, “I’ve performed it a couple of times, but on TV shows and the audience didn’t have to sing along, so thank you very much.”
Sheeran gave a bit of backstory to a few of the other songs, noting of another romantic song, “First Times,” that it had been the first song he wrote for “+,” and then he put a date on that. “My fourth studio album came out, and I’ve been making it for a very long time. This song I’ gonna play you now was the first song I wrote when I started the album in June 2017… I wrote this song and recorded it and went to dinner and had a bottle of wine…” Then came a call from the producer back at the studio, saying, “We didn’t get the vocal…” Sheeran said his voice might be a little rough from all the promo he’d been doing for the album — including a shorter appearance at L.A.’s Forum for the Jingle Ball a few nights earlier — but suggested that this roughness might reasonably match his post-wine-bottle recording of that tune.
The singer is not much one for formalwear, and although on this occasion he wore his trousers all the way down to his trademark luxury sneakers, he noted that because of a recent video, “I’m getting lots of compliments on my legs.” For as many remarks as he’d gotten about how white they are, “fun fact about that: The music video actually added about six shades to them, so they’re way paler than that.”
Along with wedding songs, Sheeran gives good carnality, too. And so a penultimate reading of “Shape of You” — maybe his most perfect pop hit, and a song that had an actually much more shocking Grammy shutout than the Weeknd’s, back in its day — was followed at the close by a recent song that takes Sheeran even further into bad-boy mode, “Bad Habits,” which he told the audience is now his favorite song to play.
When will he be playing it more? Sheeran, who has a habit of breaking touring records when he goes on the road for years in a row, may not be starting his next epic arena/stadium journey until 2023. So non-contest winners may have to content themselves for a while with filmings or recordings of these current club-level appearances.
His Belasco show in L.A. aired live on SiriusXM Hits 1 Monday night, but there are more chances to hear it in full, as it’s also available on the SXM app, and the Pulse channel will broadcast the full performance again on Thursday evening at 6 p.m. ET, with the Coffee House channel also airing select tracks. Songs from the set will also be rebroadcast during the weekend on Hits 1 starting Friday at noon ET.