Review: In Clearwater, Ed Sheeran kicks off theater tour with story-driven sad and happy hours

The show came after Sheeran spent time at Middleton Middle School where he gifted the music program guitars.

click to enlarge Ed Sheeran plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on May 19, 2023. - Photo by Ray Roa
Photo by Ray Roa
Ed Sheeran plays Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Florida on May 19, 2023.
As part of his six-song opening set in Clearwater on Friday night, Texas songwriter Ben Kweller played “Thirteen” a piano-driven pop song about touch, and falling in love, and the march of time, and dancing in the moonlight. The 41-year-old told a story about how he played the song for Ed Sheeran and his wife Cherry Seaborn as the first dance at their wedding.

Kweller, who collaborated with Sheeran on his 2021 album = (pronounced “equals”) thanked the chatty crowd for supporting him during his set, saying it’s not an easy task opening for “the biggest superstar in the world.”

Sheeran, for his part, seemed like he had some stuff to get off his chest, too.

“I realize that with the album I made, I have only a few songs I’ll play in the stadium,” the 32-year-old told a sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall, alluding to his show Saturday night in Tampa where he’s set to break a single-show ticket sales record at Raymond James Stadium. “So I put these shows to basically play the album in full. ”

Clearwater is the first of 14 intimate theater shows Sheeran will play across North America through September.

Sheeran—who spent the afternoon with students from Tampa’s Middleton High School who received guitars and tickets to the sold-out Saturday show—had not played in a small room since April when he was in a courtroom fighting off a copyright lawsuit. His last stop at Ruth Eckerd was for rehearsal ahead of the NFL 2021 kickoff when he played a free concert in downtown Tampa.
He promised to lead the crowd through an hour-long comedown as he played - (pronounced “subtract”) front-to-back—and did not disappoint. Released just two weeks ago, the album is a meditative  window into Sheeran’s headspace as he grappled with the unexpected death of one of his best friends, Jamal Edwards, and the cancer diagnosis his wife received as she was six months pregnant with their second child.

For two hours, backed by his five-piece band plus a six-piece string ensemble featuring local string players, Sheeran told stories in between nearly every one of the 23 songs in the two-hour set.

He talked about not being able to move around London without thinking of Edwards (“Eyes Closed”), losing innocence while going on benders to try and cope (“End Of Youth”), and the ritual of waking up hungover to spin records during breakfast with his kid who knew nothing of the self-medicating her dad did the night before (“Dusty”).

“We listen to everything from Black Sabbath to Joni Mitchell in our kitchen,” he said. Even the 2022 reissue of Slipknot’s Iowa got play in the Sheeran house as his daughter ate porridge (oatmeal, you American).

“You should have seen my face when ‘People = Shit’ came on,” he added.

High brow critics give Sheeran a lot of shit for the prolificity of his songwriting. They clamor for more edited, or refined, lyrics, and scoff at Hallmark card platitudes (read: his banter about assigning colors to emotions before a harmony-driven take on “Colourblind”). Before a run through “Vega,” he admitted to letting songs spill out of him when (subtract) collaborator Aaron Dessner (of The National) sent him song beds to put lyrics on top of.

But on Friday, Sheeran’s storytelling could have stripped back even the snootiest of veneers. To hear him talk about the impetus for the songs was to listen to someone simply trying to work through one of the worst year of his life—relatable on every level, regardless of the immaculate timepiece Sheeran wore on the wrist attached to his fretting hand.

And the crowd was happy to listen, and let him be. They sat silent, save for applause after each song, as he worked through all 14 selections from (subtract). During more than a few moments, especially on “Saltwater,” the help from the band made it easy to forget that Sheeran built his name on solo shows driven by his impeccable timing, quiet confidence and loop stations.

“Coming back to playing gigs like this reminds me why I started doing this in the first place,” he said with an earnestness that escapes many other pop stars.

He closed the (subtract) set with a one-two-punch-in-the-gut of his favorite song from the album (“No Strings”) and the dirge-y, sea shanty-ish “The Hills Of Aberfeldy.” (Sheeran tapped into to his folk roots again in the encore with a medley of “Afterglow” and the the Scottish—or Irish, depending on who you ask—traditional “The Parting Glass.”)

After that, Sheeran, who sipped on a water bottle throughout the night, gave fans a six-song “happy hour” marked by the hits he’ll surely play at Raymond James this weekend.

There was a straight up Depeche Mode vibe on “Bad Habits,” and even a broken string during the ode-to-excess, “Bloodstream.” He smiled as the crowd sang along to “A-Team,” a song he wrote at 18 when he was background noise at his hometown pub, and was unsurprisingly masterful in looping together the clap-laden “Shiver,” which has become a bonafide line-dancing megahit.  "I lived in Nashville for all of 2013. I absolutely love country music. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that would happen," he added.

Sheeran set the crowd slow dancing and “sha la la”-ing on “Thinking Out Loud,” and it was heartwarming to feel how much he’s grown up since 2017 when he released “Perfect,” which has become something of a wedding anthem of itself. The fourth single from ÷ (pronounced "Divide"), Sheeran explained, only came to life because he had extra time to finish a “phone idea” in the studio after recording for FX series “Sons Of Anarchy.”

And in a breath, Sheeran’s theater tour kickoff in Clearwater on Friday, like his music, was just as serendipitous and ephemeral. You were lucky if you were there. And if you let your guard down and listened, you probably realized that being happy and sad—then coming out on the other side to talk about it—is what it’s all about anyway.

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UPDATED 05/22/23 5:40 p.m. Updated to make it that it was Middleton High School, not middle school.