Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 12, 2014
Ed Sheeran is a little awkward, and so are his live shows.
That’s not to say that the 23-year-old British singer-songwriter, who taped an episode of "Austin City Limits" at the Moody Theater on Wednesday night, is untalented. On the contrary: Sheeran is gifted with strong pipes, a knack for penning weepy ballads and a charmingly self-conscious stage presence.
That last part may be one key to the copper-topped singer’s success. Sheeran beamingly wore a black ACL T-shirt for the episode (which will air sometime during the show’s 40th season that starts this fall). Channeling Hugh Grant from his lonely post onstage, Sheeran’s slouching, "Who, me? A pop star?" charisma kept the show running even when the marathon of balladry threatened to drag things down. Perhaps that doesn’t give credit where credit’s due: That charisma fed a fawning army of teenage girls. Sheeran’s devoted front-row Greek chorus sang along to every song with unceasing eye contact, many literally fanning themselves as their knees literally buckled.
If you were wondering if that sort of thing still happens at concerts, well, there you have it.
At his own admission, Sheeran’s catalog is largely "music to cry and eat ice cream to." It was canny to forestall the inevitable acoustic grind and instead open the set with a frenetic, extended take on "You Need Me, I Don’t Need You" off of debut album "+." Sheeran (figuratively) donned his best Jason Mraz hat, tenaciously sing-rapping, beatboxing and working the loop kit like a man possessed. The overlong number radiated both dogged enthusiasm and mush-mouthed clumsiness, but the target audience seemed to take both as a swoon-worthy positive.
Somewhat surprisingly, Sheeran threw hits like "The A Team" and "Lego House" out to the crowd almost perfunctorily. It took a little movie magic to really light up the Moody Theater, with performances of "I See Fire" and "All of the Stars" (from "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" and "The Fault In Our Stars" soundtracks, respectively) making the biggest mark on the evening.
The former stunned with stripped down beauty and Sheeran’s sterling voice. It also allowed him a cute bonding moment with a young boy in the front row. Sheeran said his father also took him to his first concert at a young age, and he dedicated "I See Fire" to someone he said looked like he enjoyed "dragons and dwarves." The latter tune, embracing the emotional power of its accompanying teen tearjerker flick, seemed to send a couple of young ladies into almost religious reverie. (When Sheeran sang "I can see the stars from America/I wonder, do you see them, too," one young lady raised her hands like she was at a praise-and-worship concert.)
Sheeran closed the evening the same way he started it: emulating another pop star prone to fedora abuse. If you’ve heard the Pharrell-produced "Sing" on the radio and thought it was Justin Timberlake, don’t feel bad. The club-ready single harnesses Sheeran’s adept falsetto for maximum "Justified"-era vibes.
The smooth-and-sexy style fit a tad gawkily on the singer, but the Moody Theater was ready for a party after a few rounds of songs about dragons and terminally ill teenagers. Before he left the stage, Sheeran instructed the crowd to repeat the song’s chanting hook ad infinitum — even after he left the stage, even after they got home.
Cheeky? Yes. But leaving a theater full of people uncomfortably chanting to diminishing returns while they wonder if you’re going to return to the stage? That’s just awkward.