If there’s talent in today’s music – and that’s a big if – the one thing certainly missing is passion. In a world of mass-produced, say-nothing, sound-alike songs, performers who convey emotion and, even more, intensity are rare, indeed.
Ed Sheehan showed with his concert Monday at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center that he’s among those rarities.
The ginger-haired Brit singer-songwriter, who has more than a passing resemblance to a young Van Morrison, also often resembled Morrison in performance: So caught up in the music that his time on stage seemed as much spiritual as entertaining.
He would rap speedily as if speaking in tongues – comparable to Morrison’s iconic scat singing – or become entranced in strumming his acoustic guitar or in the layers of sound he built with looping technology from those strums, percussive slaps on his guitar or stomps on the stage.
In fact, one of the most impressive elements of the show was how the 23-year-old Sheeran appeared on stage, confidently alone with a guitar and no band, and made all of that sound.
The other most impressive element was how soulful some of Sheeran’s singing was, and how compelling some of his lyrics were.
That was true from the opening song, “I’m a Mess,” which he strolled on stage, unannounced, to play. With a nice intensity, it was the first of nine songs he played during the 16-song, 100-minute show that came from his sophomore album, “x,” released in June.
He followed that opener with his 2011 gold hit “Lego House,” which had a light touch yet still seethed with intensity.
What that songs and others showed was that Sheeran is hardly just the typical singer-songwriter his radio hits have portrayed him to be. By the third song, his new single “Don’t,” he was showing the credibility of his rapping – speedy and spitted, segueing into the Blackstreet song “No Diggity.”
On “Take It Back” he looped his guitar strumming and put it down altogether to rap very fast.
As if to contrast that, the next song, “One,” was slow and stark, Sheeran singing in a falsetto. And the new “Bloodstream” found him slapping his guitar for percussion and electronically layering his own vocals.
One of the best of the night was the new “Tenerife Sea,” a sea chantey that fit the singer-songwriter style. It had the deepest meaning – just bare emotional vocal over more complicated guitar, with him finishing in a falsetto.
Not every song was as successful. “Runaway” was more like a shell of a song with no substance, and its less weighty nature was borne out when Sheeran finished it with a chorus of Backstreet Boys’ “Backstreet’s Back.”
He asked the crowd not to sing along to “Afire Love,” calling it the most important song to him on the new album. But it was nothing special.
Far better, perhaps the best, was “Thinking Out Loud.” Sheeran’s voice was its most soulful – its most Morrison-esque. And the surprise was that the young audience embraced it as well.
He closed the main set with “Give Me Love,” on which he welcomed the audience to sing (he even divided the crowd to have them sing the chorus a cappella), and again displayed the passion that made the night so successful. Then the cool, rising “I See Fire,” after which he simply set down his guitar and walked off.
He started the encore with two of just six songs he played from his gold debut album. He stretched “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You” to 11 minutes with beat boxing and loops, and strumming so fast on his guitar that he shredded a string.
He was so enrapt that he seemed to channeled Morrison – and made it possible to think that if Van the Man had come out today, he’d probably be rapping, too.
Then came Sheeran’s biggest hit, the double-platinum 2011 breakthrough “The A Team.” Sheeran sang it both stark and soulful — more deliberate and forceful than the tentative original.
The show ended with “Sing,” the gold first single from “x,” this time Sheeran channeling Justin Timberlake.
Perhaps just as surprising as Sheeran’s performance was how invested the audience – largely young and female – was. These songs were not your typical tween fare – and yet they cheered and sang along as if they were the congregation of Sheeran’s church.
It wasn’t the largest crowd the arena has seen – significant areas of the floor were empty, as was most of the higher sections. But the intensity with which they reacted to Sheeran also was the kind Morrison’s fans heaped on him, and still do.