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Ed Sheeran engrosses Xcel with ballads, raps

Ed Sheeran Sept. 16 at Xcel Energy Center

Ed Sheeran Sept. 16 at Xcel Energy Center

In my experience, there are two camps of Ed Sheeran fans: the ballad believers and the sing-rap stalwarts. I fall into the latter camp. I know I’m in the minority; my friends prize the falsetto on songs like “Photograph” and “One.” And in Sheeran’s catalog, there are two “Thinking Out Loud”s for every “Don’t.” But I’m always more compelled by his beats and clever wordplay than the sentimental promises. Plus, come on: Who doesn’t fall apart upon hearing “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Take Me Back,” and “Superstition” together?

Last night in St. Paul, Sheeran played all sorts of hits to his sold-out, eager crowd. Just two days after Taylor Swift finished up a three-night run at the Xcel, her BFF Ed Sheeran took over the stage. The U.K. pop star relied on some of the same tricks as T-Swift (Polaroid-style videos of days gone by, lots of crowd sing-alongs) but made several different choices (while Taylor had myriad backup dancers, Ed performed alone, using only guitars and looping pedals).

“I am prepared to lose my voice,” Sheeran declared near the top of his two-hour set. While things didn’t go that far, he did hit some incredible notes, belting out covers and originals throughout the night. Songs by Drake (“Know Yourself”), Stevie Wonder (“Superstition” plus a full version of “I Was Made to Love Her”), and 50 Cent (“In Da Club”) showed up in his set. Also, Sheeran performed a better version of “Feeling Good” than any American Idol contestant ever — I’d say he even topped Bublé.

During the show, Sheeran said, “I’m in a rambling mood.” He wasn’t joking. The Xcel audience got insight on wardrobe choices (long story short: He bought his pair of black jeans last year while taking dancing lessons. Several servings of beer and chicken wings later, “They do not fit anymore”), concert etiquette (“If it does not harm anyone, do whatever the hell you want”), and “The Man” (rarely performed at shows anymore, the intensely personal track is “the only song I’ve ever regretted putting out.”) Because of all the commentary, the show managed to seem quite intimate.

One downside of the concert: “Bloodstream” is my favorite song from x, Sheeran's sophomore LP, but without the studio version’s measured percussion, it lost direction live. Also, Sheeran tried turning it into a banger; he asked the audience to “bounce” on the chorus before making a weird masturbation joke (which, from the looks of Twitter, he has slipped into every set).

Conversely, “Lego House” and “Thinking Out Loud” were great live. “I See Fire,” from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’s closing credits, stunned me — while performing, Sheeran squeezed his eyes shut, and a fire-breathing Smaug flanked him on-screen. Before the show, I was more familiar with Kygo's version than the original. But after Sheeran’s performance, I’m ready to rediscover the source.

A few other highlights popped up throughout; Sheeran looped harmonies and guitar sections masterfully, and the audience knew the songs. “I’m assuming everyone here is a Stevie Wonder fan,” Sheeran said before “I Was Made to Love Her.” “If you’re not, sort yourself out.”

The encore featured “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” 50 Cent and Drake snippets, and “Sing.” As Sheeran left the stage, one last guitar loop rang out repeatedly — and then, it cut out, and the night was over. On the exact anniversary of his 2014 Target Center show, Ed Sheeran showed why he’s welcome in town anytime.

Notes on the openers: Christina Perri delivered encouragement and a bit of vocal/stylistic range during her graceful eight-song set. Before her, Jamie Lawson, Ed Sheeran’s first Gingerbread Man Records signee, was sincere and fun. It was Lawson’s last night on the tour, but Passenger (who played First Avenue last night) will join in on the Chicago and Foxborough, Massachusetts shows.

Critic’s bias: I’ve enjoyed Sheeran’s music for a while; I almost went to his Madrid show last December with a friend. This one’s for you, Inès!

Critic’s bias, part two: I have a thing for accents. That might explain my sing-rap favoritism.

Random notebook dump: I’m trying not to play armchair psychologist, and I might be outside of my bounds here, but I’ve often wondered how an artist with such apparent substance abuse habits can seem so functional on any given day. Barely two minutes pass without a mention of drugs or alcohol in Sheeran’s (apparently confessional) music. “Bloodstream” is about taking drugs. But is that a partial call for help, or is Sheeran simply being more honest than the next musician?

The crowd: Not as young as I was expecting. Maybe most of his tween fans had to pick Taylor over Ed.

Overheard in the crowd: “I bet he heard me scream,” bragged a fan behind me. I bet she burst some eardrums.

Setlists:

Jamie Lawson:

Cold in Ohio

Someone for Everyone

Don’t Let Me Let You Go

Wasn’t Expecting That

Ahead of Myself

Christina Perri:

Shot Me in the Heart

Arms

Distance

Burning Gold

Jar of Hearts

A Thousand Years

Human

Ed Sheeran:

I’m a Mess

Lego House

Drunk

Take It Back / Superstition (Stevie Wonder cover) / Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers cover)

One

Photograph

Bloodstream

Tenerife Sea

Don’t / Loyal (Chris Brown cover) / No Diggity (Blackstreet cover) / The Next Episode (Dr. Dre cover) / Nina

Feeling Good

I See Fire

Be My Forever (with Christina Perri)

The Man

Kiss Me

Thinking Out Loud

I Was Made to Love Her (Stevie Wonder cover)

The A Team

Encore:

You Need Me, I Don’t Need You / In Da Club (50 Cent cover) / Lose Yourself (Drake cover)

Sing