British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s career can be divided into the time before and after Shape of You, the global smash released in January, which turned him into a contender for the title of the biggest pop star in the world. Sheeran’s edge over the likes of Adele, Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift is his cross-generational and, to an extent, cross-gender appeal. It isn’t just the children but their mums too who know the lyrics to his tunes and going by the make-up of the 10,000-strong audience at his concert at JioGarden in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex on Sunday, there are a fair number of young men among the legions of Sheerios.
The last time Sheeran played in the city, in March 2015, he was on the cusp of superstardom but not quite there yet. He seemed genuinely surprised by his massive following here. This visit, part of a world tour to promote his record-breaking third album ÷ (pronounced Divide) that includes Shape of You, showed fans a new man. Two years ago, his concert, while crowd-pleasing, lacked dynamism. Last night, Sheeran seemed like he was on home ground – he chatted with the audience between tracks, telling them of his love for India, prompting them to sing louder even when they were out of tune, and sharing that he’s well aware that a small section of the attendees at his gigs comprises reluctant boyfriends and “superdads” accompanying their daughters.
Not once did he name the songs. There was no need to. Almost everybody assembled belted out each word of his 17-track set, which featured nine of the 16 tunes on the deluxe edition of ÷ and the biggest hits from his last two albums. Expectedly, fans could be heard the loudest during Shape of You. Predictably too, he performed it in the encore, for which he changed from his customised light blue kurta (covered in patches bearing the logo for his album with a pattern of Warli dancers embroidered on the collar) into an Indian cricket team T-shirt.
He closed with live favourite You Need Me, I Don’t Need You and was more animated than he had been all evening during the rap track, striding across the stage, standing on the monitors and showing one last time that he was no longer the shy guy who visited Mumbai in 2015.
Once again, he did it all by himself, with, for the most part, just an acoustic guitar and a loop station (he used an electric axe only for Thinking Out Loud and looped the beats for Shape of You on the keyboard). This makes him a one-man band and possibly the most economical live international act in the business. (The pianist he brought on to accompany him on the keys during How Would You Feel is a carpenter he discovered in among his touring team). The system, however, has its limitations. For instance, the cheesy Galway Girl – as guilty a pleasure as an ersatz Irish folk ditty can be – doesn’t sound quite half as fun without the fiddle. And all the balladeering can feel a bit samey after a point.
This is also a criticism frequently made of Arijit Singh, the Hindi film playback singer who exactly a week ago performed to a similar-sized audience in Bandra Kurla Complex’s MMRDA Grounds. While Sheeran and Singh belong to different music worlds, there are parallels to be drawn between them. Apart from the contrast in Sheeran’s solo act and Singh’s fondness for large backing bands, they are both currently the dominant male voices in their respective fields and their followers cut across age groups and sexes. Their widespread appeal can be attributed to their qualities as everymen, geeky troubadours who can be viewed either as kings of romance or peddlers of schmaltz.
That’s not to say that Singh and Sheeran aren’t consciously working towards their seeming omnipresence. In interviews, Singh has said, in roughly these words, that the reason he sings almost every Bollywood song these days is that he believes, perhaps not incorrectly, that the shelf life of a playback vocalist is five years and he’s simply making hay while the sun shines. Sheeran, on the other hand, has clearly stated his ambitions for worldwide domination. It wouldn’t be too far out there to presume that the release of ÷ was strategically timed between Adele’s and Swift’s LPs to give Sheeran his best shot at sweeping the Grammy’s next year. (Swift’s album missed the eligibility cut-off date and while Sheeran’s biggest competition will come from rapper Kendrick Lamar, history has shown that awards committees tend to favour everymen and everywomen over their edgier counterparts.)
If Singh and Sheeran tend to sound repetitive, it’s partly because they’ve created a signature style. Music directors hire Singh because of his ability to elevate the most ordinary tunes. As for Sheeran, those looking for an answer to what makes him distinct need only have watched the opening act, American singer Lauv, whose electro-R&B compositions were inoffensively pleasant but eminently forgettable. At the end of his 90-minute set, Sheeran had given fans exactly what they came for. Despite being charged the criminal rate of Rs 50 for a 300ml glass of water and the lack of large screens, their pop idol, for his part, had given them their money’s worth.