Monday, January 30
Better than: Finding a Sugababes album in the 99-cent bin.
British pop stars have had something of a rough go when trying to break America, despite often working with much better material than much of what’s on the charts over here. The sacking of poor Cheryl Cole from The X Factor in favor of the personality void that is Nicole Scherzinger is but one of the recent examples of Brits getting the short shrift; the runaway success of Adele could be seen as kind of an exception to this rule. (And even then she’s an outlier; her songs are slower than much of pop radio’s neon-hued, club-ready offerings.)
The latest Brit to attempt a crossover to this side of the Atlantic is Ed Sheeran, a young redhead with a penchant for hip-hop and a knack for writing lyrics that distill stories to their essence. Last night he played the Mercury Lounge armed with just an acoustic guitar, a bunch of looping pedals, and, most importantly, a goofy yet self-possessed charisma that had him quoting Lil Kim two songs into his set, splitting up the crowd for a successful singalong on the next song, and ending the night in the middle of the crowd, spinning around and singing while standing on a chair and holding the audience rapt.
To say that his New York debut was an unqualified success might be a bit premature; the crowd at last night’s show was a bit self-selected, with British accents and unprompted singing along thrown into the mix of noise, and quite a few up-and-comers from the UK and these shores have been adored by the on-the-list cognoscenti in New York and greeted with utter blankness outside this city’s cozy confines. But it was a fun, entertaining show, and there was a glimmer of something special about it. Sheeran’s blend of self-possession and humility—telling stories that sometimes went nowhere and other times flowed right into his songs, sassing back at a heckler who asked him to play an Oasis song (seriously?), going from soft, tender croon to rapidfire spitting—made me think he could, maybe, find a home in this country’s pop world, perhaps somewhere alongside his labelmate Jason Mraz. (There’s certainly a market for attractive white male singers who sing softly and wield big guitars; just look at the recent run of American Idol results.)
Sheeran performed utterly solo last night, looping his guitar and his voice as accompaniment; it made for a much more appealing sonic atmosphere than those found on the recorded versions of his songs, which at their worst can list toward Lite-FM mush. It certainly foregrounded his appreciation of hip-hop—as did the snippets of Lil Kim, 50 Cent, and Damian Marley that he threw into the mix—and his expert use of the setup, which he twirled and fiddled with like it was actually an appendage that he’d had use of all his life. Sonically, the loops (and singalongs) contrasted nicely with the last three songs, which he performed in the crowd and without his pedals or any amplification; among the set-closing selections was the Irish end-of-the-night standard “The Parting Glass,” which highlighted the delicate timbre of his voice and (perhaps inadvertently although given Sheeran’s overall composure probably deliberately) married folk traditions old and new as the crowd, respectfully, stayed quiet.
Critical bias: Only knew him as a popular British dude until I heard his Yelawolf collab last week. And, you know, when your live show reminds me of Patrick Stump and tUnE-yArDs…
Overheard: “It was 52, not 53.”—someone refuting Sheeran’s onstage claim that he once stuck 53 Malteasers in his mouth.
Random notebook dump: Hope nobody sees his homage to Lil Kim as an inadvertent Nicki Minaj dis.
Give Me Love
You & I
You Need Me, I Don’t Need You / In The Club / Welcome To Jamrock
The Parting Glass