Review: Ed Sheeran at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre

There cannot have been a better time for Dubai to catch Sheeran’s meteoric rise. Recently named the most-streamed artist of 2014 by Spotify and having picked up two Brits — the singer-songwriter displayed his massive range of emotions and textures.

Ed Sheeran performs during his concert at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre on March 5.  Sarah Dea / The National
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The Ed Sheeran live experience is just him and a guitar. Alone, in front of 11,000 people – even his thrillingly accomplished support act Ryan Keen – another sensitive UK singer/songwriter with incredible guitar chops and an emotive turn of phrase – brought a percussionist along for the ride.

His show is one man and a guitar, perhaps, but it delivers a huge range of emotions and textures. Utilising his trademark loop station to spellbinding effect – a device that allows him to layer his guitar and vocals on top of one-another, essentially sampling himself live – Sheeran can flit from intimate troubadour to full-on freak out with the push of a button.

The sonic scope ranges from the acoustic angst-rock of opener I'm A Mess and the raging, confessional Bloodstream, to the spiteful critic-baiting boy-rap Take it Back and the vengeful Don't. The latter, an ode to a celebrity lover who betrayed him, is a wicked case study in turning heartbreak into pop gold.

The biggest reaction however was to the balladeer Ed, the sensitive boy-next-door of Lego House, Kiss Me and set-closer Give Me Love, all performed amid torrents of hyperventilating teenage squeals.

"If you don't know this next song thank you for coming, but I don't know why you are here," said Sheeran, introducing his debut single The A Team.

Grown women ran from the toilet queue to hear last year's soppy UK number one Thinking out Loud, the sole performance on a clean electric guitar.

Sheeran's strength on record is that his songs are so deeply grounded in open, earnest diary scraps – the girlfriend who made him watch Shrek 12 times in Wake Me Up, for instance – it's hard not to feel they, and he, are genuine, an antidote to the auto-tuned pop factory of the contemporary charts. Live, the sense is simply multiplied (pun intended). When he hits a bum chord in Take it Back, it actually makes me like him more.

Sheeran, who recently turned 24, is growing up in public, sharing his innermost thoughts and feelings with the world – and largely getting it right.

And isn’t that what a singer/songwriter is meant to be doing? Because for all his celebrity tie-ups with Pharrell and Taylor Swift, that’s what Sheeran is – a classically confessional singer/songwriter. But one who has moved the hackneyed genre of one-guy-and-a-guitar into the 21st century with a mix of contemporary influences and technology – namely, hip-hop sensibilities and mastering the myriad possibilities of live looping. He’s not the first to do so, and almost certainly not the best, but he’s sure made the most money.

The last time I saw Ed Sheeran live he wasn't yet signed. He'd just independently released You Need Me, I Don't Need You, a cocksure teenage sound-off where he namechecks our shared rural beginnings ("Suffolk sadly seems to sort of suffocate me").

Encoring with the same song in Dubai a half-decade later, it was recast as a rock star's bragging anthem, a hip-hop-infused battle march which playfully segued into Fiddy's In Da Club and Azalea's Fancy. Sheeran rounded the evening off with Sing, somehow recreating all that radio-jammer's funky percussive drive and bass grooviness with just his little, looped acoustic guitar.

Splitting from the stage suddenly, the audience was left singing Pharrell’s seductive “ooh ooh ooh ooh, oh” chorus refrain to an empty stage. Beautiful.

As the final chords ring out I hear an adult asking one of the many tearful teenagers, “Is this your first concert?”

I didn’t hear the answer – but if it was, boy did she pick a good one.