CLEARWATER — Ed Sheeran didn’t sugarcoat it when he greeted the 2,000 or so fans packed inside Ruth Eckerd Hall Friday night.
“The next hour is not going to be happy. It’s going to be a sad hour,” said the English singer, kicking off the first show of his Subtract Tour. “I promise at the end of the gig we’re all going to be jumping and having fun.”
Since April 2022, Sheeran has been traveling to stadiums across the globe for the +–=÷× (a.k.a. Mathematics) Tour. Then last month, he announced a series of concerts in intimate venues, starting at Ruth Eckerd Hall the night before his Tampa show at Raymond James Stadium. Call it a return to his roots.
Anyone who has been to a wedding in the last five years can tell you that Sheeran is behind some of this generation’s most popular love songs. His ballads like “Perfect” and “Thinking Out Loud” are as much present on Top 40 playlists as they are slow dance staples.
But the album Sheeran released on May 5, titled “Subtract,” is filled with themes of heartbreak and loss. While he had been working on the project for a decade, he scrapped much of it after a series of tragedies: his wife’s cancer diagnosis and the death of friends Jamal Edwards and Shane Warne. The new songs, Sheeran explained to the Clearwater crowd, ended up becoming an exploration of his grieving process.
The journey was heavy. But as fans would find out, it was also one worth taking.
Part one: Sheeran performs — and annotates — “Subtract”
Hours after surprising a classroom of Tampa students at Middleton High School with free concert tickets and instruments, Sheeran bounded onto the stage of Ruth Eckerd Hall.
A full 11-piece band, including a string section, was already waiting for him. He wanted to start with “Subtract” in full, as it was meant to sound.
“I think it matters more than, you know, ‘Bad Habits,’ or ‘Shape of You,’” he said. “I understand an album like this is in a different space, but it’s so nice to be able to play it in a room like this.”
A few weeks before, the Grammy-winning artist became the subject of a new Disney+ documentary series, “Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All.” He also recently beat two lawsuits that accused him of plagiarizing Marvin Gaye. Neither of those updates received a mention from Sheeran.
Instead, he walked fans through the story behind each new song.
“This album was written in a period of my life that was definitely the most challenging period to live through,” Sheeran said. “But I feel like looking back on it and having this record is [like] you’ve found something beautiful in something really [chaotic] and horrible.”
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In a plain white T-shirt and cargo pants, Sheeran spoke and sang to the crowd candidly, as if he were sharing observations from therapy with a pal.
Ahead of “Eyes Closed,” he described walking into West London pubs still expecting to run into his friend who had died. Before “End of Youth,” he said he felt like an adult for the first time after experiencing a loved one’s sudden death, despite Sheeran being a 31-year-old father at the time.
He revisited both his friend’s funeral and the band practice where he learned that his pregnant wife had a tumor.
“I don’t think grief is this thing where you’re allowed two weeks and after you have to get on with it,” he said before “Life Goes On.”
The audience absorbed in silence, few singing along or standing. Some wiped tears. As Sheeran belted, it was hard not to think about people in your own life who had passed.
Just like the process of actually grieving, the pain came in waves, punctuated by moments of relief. Sheeran actually grinned during “Dusty,” tapping his foot as he sang about spinning vinyl records in the morning for his daughter while feeding her “porridge.. or oatmeal, sorry.”
“Everyone having fun?” he said at one point. “I’m assuming people are coming to the show tomorrow. From the jump, tomorrow I promise you’re going to be like, ‘Oh, I’m in a good mood.’ Tonight is just different.”
Part two: Sheeran shifts the vibe with the hits
If the first half of the show was catharsis, the second was celebration. Or as Sheeran put it, “I’m going to play some songs that hopefully won’t depress you.”
As he completed “Subtract,” the entire audience rose in a standing ovation for the first time since he arrived. Sheeran faced away, hugging his band members and waving as they left the stage.
Then it was just him and his instruments.
The crowd stayed on its feet as Sheeran ran through some of his biggest singles from the last decade or so. He built each song from scratch, recording layers of looping sounds: a guitar riff, a keyboard melody, the beat of his palm thumping against the acoustic guitar body.
It was time for the hits — yes, even “Bad Habits.”
Sheeran dragged out seven of his older favorites, eliciting a big singalong with “The A Team” and an even bigger dance party for “Shape of You.” The highlight was a sultry rendition of “Bloodstream,” red lights strobing as Sheeran crooned and slapped his guitar.
For the encore, he busted out “The Parting Glass,” a tune sang by both the Scottish and Irish to wrap up an event with friends.
“Good night,” he sang. “And joy be to you all.”
Ed Sheeran’s Subtract Tour setlist
- “Salt Water”
- “Eyes Closed”
- “Life Goes On”
- “End of Youth”
- ”No Strings”
- The Hills of Aberfeldy”
- “The A Team”
- “Thinking Out Loud”
- “Shape of You”
- “Bad Habits”
- “The Parting Glass”