Ed Sheeran's heartfelt emotions resonate at stadium, theater shows: 'You'll be quite sad'

PHILADELPHIA – You could call it a tale of two Eds, but regardless if he’s baring his heart to a theater of 3,500 or scampering around a rotating platform for a stadium crowd of 70,000, he’s still the same Ed Sheeran.

A sincere, talented fellow. A solo conqueror. A songwriter capable of penning swoony love ballads that could be their own category (Ed Sheeran’s Songs For First Dances At Weddings) and plucky pop songs alike.

In the past 16 months, Sheeran, 32, faced challenging life events – death, illness, and legal annoyances. He channeled his churning emotions into his sixth album, “Subtract,” the last in his “mathematics” series of releases, and is dotting his sold-out stadium run – also called the Mathematics Tour - with a few of the less somber offerings.

But in some markets, Sheeran is spotlighting his most emotionally significant work to date with an intimate theater gathering the night before his stadium spectacle.

In Philadelphia Friday, Sheeran corralled his five-piece band and a six-piece string section to unspool the 14 sensitive tracks on “Subtract” in running order. Almost exactly 24 hours later, Sheeran regaled his devotees packed into Lincoln Financial Field with a 27-song dazzler of a career overview, with his band joining him for portions of the show.

What hits does Ed Sheeran play on his Mathematics Tour?

His Goliath of a stadium concert is an in-the-round production that makes excellent use of kaleidoscopic colors, tilted light towers adorned with guitar picks that serve as video screens, and a spinning platform that allows Sheeran to play to all sides of the stadium while accumulating marathon-level mileage on his color-spackled sneakers.

Ed Sheeran's staging for his Mathematics Tour is a colorful affair.

The opening blast of “Tides” and “Blow” included rockets of pyrotechnics for Sheeran to dodge as he excitedly loped around the moving stage. Fans know that a hallmark of his shows is the use of looping pedals on which Sheeran creates all of the beats and backing vocals live (he enlisted a band for parts of his concerts starting in 2021).

On Saturday, he crafted a thundering cadence behind “I’m a Mess” before banging the body of his guitar to create the backdrops that gave “Shivers” its lustful bounce and “Castle on the Hill” a swooshing rhythm.

Some hits, such as the otherwise slight “Overpass Graffiti” and the pedestrian toe-tapper that became a smash for Justin Bieber, “Love Yourself,” flourished in a live setting, where Sheeran’s boyish charm could resonate.

Sheeran briefly told the crowd about the death of his best friend, Jamal Edwards, as the inspiration behind his heart-tugging hit, “Eyes Closed,” and shared that the sparse “Boat” was the first song he wrote for “Subtract.” But he primarily focused on the singalongs – a spirited “Galway Girl” and typically dreamy “Thinking Out Loud” among them ‒ having relegated his emotional exhaustion to Friday’s show.

‘An album that is not meant to be played in stadiums’

At that relatively cozy gathering at The Met, Sheeran spilled his heart as he paced the stage between songs while telling anecdotes about Edwards and his wife Cherry Seaborn, who was diagnosed with a tumor the week before Edwards’ untimely death.

This was the setting best suited to the pensive ruminations on “Subtract,” and playing the album straight through allowed the painful story of Sheeran’s 2022 to unfold as intended.

Though the ever self-deprecating Sheeran joked several times about the subdued coloring of the songs – “For the first half of this gig, you’ll be quite sad,” he said with a sheepish smile about his album “not meant to be played in stadiums” – most in the sold-out crowd responded with the reverence the music deserved.

Usually clasping his guitar with eyes scrunched closed under his artfully mussed hair, Sheeran powered through “Salt Water,” “End of Youth” and “Dusty” and spoke openly about drinking himself “into oblivion” and crying himself to sleep during his most trying weeks.

On “Borderline,” Sheeran’s voice settled into its upper range as he ditched his guitar to clasp the microphone with both hands, his emotion palpable.

Following the closing tracks from “Subtract” with a story about the struggles of 2022 strengthening his marriage to Seaborn (“No Strings”) and how he wrote "The Hills of Aberfeldy" – its final verse sung in a capella beauty – for the original version of “Subtract” in 2012, Sheeran dipped into a “happy hour” set of hits.

Armed again with just his guitar and trusty looping technology, Sheeran sated fans who wanted to sing along with “The A Team,” “Shivers” and “Shape of You” among other radio fodder.

But Sheeran’s admission earlier in the show that, “This is all part of the process for me,” reverberated hardest. Grief, he said, is one of the things you live with, like a book on a shelf.

The duality of his performances proved that whether reflecting in a warmhearted environment or romping around a colossal stage under a shower of fireworks, music is the most accessible therapy.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ed Sheeran goes big for Mathematics tour and intimate for Subtract shows