In his memoir “Born Standing Up,” Steve Martin discusses how he began souring on his stage act when his popularity exploded and he began playing massive arenas. The nuances were lost in the vastness of the venues, and his audiences became so large that pockets of it begin entertaining themselves vocally during the performance. With no apparent way to reconcile blockbuster intimacy, it was time to move on to other ventures.
If Ed Sheeran has entertained similar thoughts, you’d never have been able to tell at Gillette Stadium on Friday (the first of two nights). Three multi-platinum albums, two No. 1 hits, and an armful of Grammys into his career, the shaggy acoustic troubadour is, well, still a shaggy acoustic troubadour. Armed with nothing but his guitar and real-time sampling pedals, Sheeran might have delivered one of the gutsiest shows ever performed in a football stadium (and possibly the one with the greatest profit margin).
Thankfully, Sheeran was never lazy. He opened with the strummy, propulsive stomp of “Castle On The Hill,” and with few exceptions — “Perfect,” the plucked chop of “Thinking Out Loud” and most of “The A Team” — he stacked his loops several deep, creating and then triggering percussion, basslines, and backing vocals like a plate-spinner constantly shifting his attention. Sometimes, as in “Eraser” and “Sing,” it resulted in overstuffed busyness, and it was easy to hear how a cozy club would have captured the delicacy of “Tenerife Sea” better.
But plenty of songs provided the same depth and drama as a full band. With spidery arpeggios and two-part harmony vocals, “Bloodstream” was neatly tense, while the rolling “Galway Girl” possessed the rhythm and guitar melody of a reel and the motormouthed cadence of rap. Sheeran could be subtler, too, adding slight but effective filigrees to the plaintive entreaty of “Photograph” and the sad, swaying “Dive” and generating a spare, Lorde-like backing for “Feeling Good” and his own “I See Fire.”
Through it all, he was as garrulous and overeager as a puppy, so affable that he could easily have gotten away with doing far less. But as he looped his guitar into tight circles and rapped enthusiastically (if not especially dexterously) in the closing “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” Sheeran was clearly enough to fill a stadium all by himself.
Opener Anne-Marie brought a tremulous warble and casual strut to her Ellie-Goulding-meets-Jessie-J subtropical pop, but her vulnerability and openness seemed feigned and overly studied. Snow Patrol followed with earnest, chiming guitar pop of a kind that’s been outdated for a decade. But there was still power (if not mileage) in it, and for “Chasing Cars” and a handful of others, they were perfectly at home with a stage and a crowd that weren’t, strictly speaking, theirs.
With Snow Patrol and Anne-Marie
At Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Friday