Oh, and there was a court case that nearly caused ol’ Teddy to call it quits entirely.
And yet, at a packed Raymond James Stadium last Saturday night, the 32-year-old pop songsmith managed to present a healthy blend of his already-timeless love anthems, and the sentimental, true-story tracks that hint at his adversities more than any banter could have. His Friday night gig at the far more intimate Ruth Eckerd Hall did provide him with much more venting space, but far less willingness to play more than a fistful of hits.
We were warned ahead of time that a 360° stage—with six guitar pick-shaped screens, and four side-stages—would be in use during the current "+-=÷x" (pronounced “Mathematics”) tour, and installed to the outer rim of the stage was a circular track that took a platform—topped with a mic, and Sheeran’s legendary loop station—around to all sides of the crowd. It was a cool trick, but I really have to wonder how the mentality of those who get motion sick held up whenever Ed took a ride.
A 10-minute countdown commenced at 8:20 p.m., and before the clock could hit zero, Sheeran—sporting a black t-shirt that said “Tampa” in rainbow lettering on both sides—entered from under the stage (like another superstar did thrice in a row in the same space last month), and immediately launched into “Tides,” off of = (pronounced “equals”). With his backing quintet still in full swing on the side stages, he swapped out his trademark acoustic six-string for a wooden, Lowden electric to shred on “Blow,” his 2019 collaboration with Chris Stapleton and Bruno Mars.
“This is my biggest show that I’ve ever played in Florida. This is mad,” Sheeran called out as the band ejected the premises to make way for his first solo set. Once he established a four-part harmony on his looper during “I’m A Mess”—not performed live in Tampa since 2015’s x (pronounced “multiply”) tour—he fulfilled his obligatory explanation as to why the gadget remains such a pertinent part of his live experience, for those doubting his authenticity.
“There is no backing track whatsoever, it is all made live on the spot,” Sheeran declared. As an example, he would record a muted strum, and use it as percussion, then adding a new chord over it, and a yelp over that. Then, he let the three-second recording play.
“I’m gonna do a lot of that,” he concluded, segueing into a heavily-looped, yet overproduction-free version of “Shivers,” which in truth, sounded fresher than the recording heard on (equals) in 2021.
Before flashlights illuminated RayJay at the end of “The A Team,” which Sheeran wrote at the age of 18, he graciously recalled his slow, but eventual rise to fame in the U.S., and how skeptical some of his fellow musical countrymen across the pond were about his first trip here.
“If you’re an English artist, you have success in England, and then, they say, ‘You can give America a go, but it probably won’t work. It’s a big country,’” he remembered.
We definitely accepted him with open arms, but one thing that Tampeños will not accept is Sheeran’s recurring claim that he hasn’t played “Give Me Love” in the U.S. for years. It may not have been a tour regular for quite some time, but seeing that all of his headlining Tampa Bay slots—excluding Ruth Eckerd, and his NFL season kickoff concert in 2021—had it on the setlist, I call shenanigans.
"Give Me Love" was the first song Sheeran ever performed in Tampa Bay—while opening for Snow Patrol at Jannus Live in 2012—and he even closed the song the same way he did at that show: By teaching both sides of the crowd how to harmonize with each other, which was a little tough to take in, only because everyone singing the same part around you drowned out the vocals coming from the other side.
Soon, Sheeran would invite the band back onto the side stages for an electric set that may have triggered “I prefer his older stuff” fans to hit the restrooms. He had already performed a few cuts off of - (pronounced "subtract"), (“Eyes Closed,” “Boat,”), but the pain had only just begun. He ran around flames and fireworks while accepting that grief, pain, and strife that seems endless is just a part of adult life during “End Of Youth.” There was the expression of slight optimism while understanding that there was still a long road of dealing with depression ahead on “Curtains,” and a lamented a past breakup on “Overpass Graffiti,” the latter of which had visuals and texts in the styles and fonts of actual graffiti.
But the electric set wasn’t all depressing, and some latecomers would probably regret that bathroom break. The end of a collaborations medley saw Khalid returning to the stage for the last minute of his 2019 song with Ed, “Beautiful People,” which Tampa mayor Jane Castor took to social media to describe as “amazing,” and full of “great words of acceptance and equality.” (You're welcome, Mayor Jane.) And on “Galway Girl,” an actual fiddler named Alicia came out to perform, which we sure as hell didn’t get when he toured ÷ (pronounced “divide.")
What came next was a barrage of greatest hits, starting with “Thinking Out Loud,” performed with the band, in the key of C. “Your grandmother knows these songs,” Sheeran joked, possibly poking fun at the whole “Let’s Get It On” case.
He went fully acoustic for the rest of the show, and carried on with a few tracks from (multiply), dedicated “Perfect” to a couple on the floor getting married in July, and most significantly, performed his original version of “Love Yourself”—made famous by Justin Bieber—which he wrote on a tour bus in 2015. He admitted that he doesn’t regret giving it away, and even cited a Stevie Wonder quote, attributing to one not feeling like they have written their greatest song of all time quite yet.
Ed’s closer, “Bad Habits,” has a bridge with the lyrics “We took the long way ‘round/And burned 'til the fun ran out.” Luckily, everything Sheeran has been through in this decade so far hasn’t been enough for the fun to run out on his end. He’s still performing on top of Volvos in New York City, surprising high school band students, and still doesn’t think he’s written his best song yet, only making him want to do more.
It’s a therapeutic era for Teddy, and if the lessons he teaches his daughters continues to spread throughout his music, we should be so lucky.
See Sandra Dohnert’s photos below.