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Yes, as with the guy playing guitar at the party, Sheeran is an easy target for the misanthropic. But for the boyfriends and moms dragged to a $100-a-seat concert, it felt like buying a ticket to “Dunkirk” and getting Christopher Nolan, solo, acting out the screenplay. Sheeran started performing in front of people waiting for the train, then found less captive audiences, who began to not only give this guy with a guitar their attention unsolicited, but also their money, too. A guitar and some keenly written tunes about ne’er-do-wells in love can stop hearts at your high school reunion. Like any resonant pop, they’re not only fun sing-a-longs, but they bridge our differences from one another with our incorrigible similarities, dumb as they might be. He is, though, the presiding entertainer at a party that epitomizes happiness for so many, where the same simple paeans are essential rally cries that can bring a house full of strangers together in exuberant chorus. He is Ed Sheeran, who grew up in small-town England, where he built a career off of his tidy songwriting, plucking out tunes that were unabashedly cliché and subtly complex on his parlor guitar. Mesmerized, his fans swayed recursively, like a grip of frat boys after a flip-cup marathon. He’s standing alone on stage at the 18,000-capacity Pepsi Center in Denver, surrounded by blue-jeaned couples, thousands of teenagers and their parents, because this party — unlike the ones in his songs — isn’t exclusively about hooking up or getting drunk. Now, he’s an RIAA multi-platinum-certified artist. It was a display that most of his set sorely lacked. He asked the crowd to move their arms up and down for one song, not because they necessarily wanted to, but because, as he joked, “It looks awesome from up here, and you’re doing it for me.” He did bring guitars — so many guitars — and a giant screen showed his face from several angles and in myriad settings, all of which seemed to be inspired by the art you’d find on folders in Trapper Keepers. Elsewhere, he relied on his enraptured public to pick up the slack, as they did for “Dive,” the night’s easy highlight. — the guy with the guitar had plenty of familiar songs to huddle around. Sure, they were covers of his own songs — although he does have the tabs to “Wonderwall” and Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” somewhere in his guitar case — but they felt just as hollowed out. Before long, his weedy acoustic quad poetics spilled from one song to another. (After Sheeran intimated two fans would “get lucky” later that night in response to a marriage proposal during “Perfect,” a girl nearby shrieked wide-eyed to a friend, as if sex was a sports team she supported.)
Without the aid of the booming bass, fiddle or drums that prop up his dynamic pop pastiche of a catalog, Sheeran was, essentially, in the great tradition of guys with guitars at parties, playing cut-rate covers. Part of it was the song — it’s a modern R&B ballad in the vein of the Backstreet Boys — and part was the spectacle, as Sheeran commanded his thousands of fans to raise their cellphones to light up the arena. It’s about, as all guys who’ve brought a guitar to a party have dreamed of at some point, the guy himself. At one point, a whale swam past a crystal in outer space. He ceded the spotlight just once, midway through, to bring out the guy playing piano at the party, for “How Would You Feel (Paen).” It was a sorely needed variation. Sipping from a titanium mug, Sheeran kept his tenor in range right up until the falsetto’d chorus of “Sing,” an encore, where he backed off, coyly kicking it down an octave. But for Denverites looking for a reason to party — who isn’t, these days? He stood defiantly alone in a simple T-shirt and jeans, a mothership of lights overhead outlining the wispy copper hair and beard around his head like a dandelion at sunset. Sheeran tried to replicate the breadth of his catalog — from club banger “Shape of You” to “Galway Girl,” a pop anthem with a nip of Irish folk — with only the aid of a looper, which recorded and replayed snippets of his vocals and guitar around him, but it was never quite enough. At the party, we’re endlessly in love or desperate to be, prone to poor choices, drinking more than we should be and, if all goes accordingly, waking up “on the right side of the wrong bed.” These aren’t revelations, and Sheeran isn’t a revelatory songwriter. But there’s a reason Sheeran’s party is on a massive arena tour: Because songs he’s written, like “Thinking Out Loud” and “Photograph,” are minor “Wonderwalls,” in regular rotation for fellow guitar guys world ’round. Others, mostly teenage girls, screamed, a reflex response that signaled the start or end of any song, or any remotely unexpected moment. But like that whale, it wasn’t enough to keep his set from floating away. Sheeran couldn’t manage that alone on Tuesday. Like any guy with a guitar at a party, Sheeran’s downfall was hubris. He didn’t seem to notice, demystifying the art of performance with self-effacing jokes and the odd water bottle he chugged and chucked over his shoulder between songs. On Tuesday, after an opening set from James Blunt, Sheeran strove to claim the audience’s undivided attention over his 1 1/2 hour set as part of his 187-show ÷ Tour (“Divide Tour”). He had a bit of a cold, he said, but the one-man show must go on. His last parlor trick was a semi-impromptu ditty that looped the word “Colorado” for its chorus. James Blunt performs at the Pepsi Center on August 15, 2017. (Tina Hagerling, The Know)
The guy playing guitar at the party has played a couple of gigs in Colorado before — the Bluebird Theater in 2012 and Red Rocks in 2015 — but none this big.