Ed Sheeran explores grief in Clearwater during Subtract Tour kickoff

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 a happy one. It’s going to be a sad time,” the English singer said as he opened the first show of his Subtract Tour. “I promise at the end of the gig we’ll all jump and have fun. “

Starting April 2022, Sheeran is traveling to stadiums around the world for the +–=÷× (aka Math) 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 our roots.

Connected: Ed Sheeran visits Tampa high school before local show

Anyone who’s been to a wedding in the last five years can tell you that Sheeran is behind some of the most popular love songs of this generation. His ballads like “Perfect” and “Thinking Out Loud” are just as 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 deaths of friends Jamal Edwards and Shane Warne. The new songs, Sheeran explained to the Clearwater crowd, became an exploration of his grieving process.

The journey was heavy. But as fans will know, it was well worth the taking.

Part One: Sheeran performs – and comments on – “Subtract”

Hours after surprising a class of Tampa students at Middleton High School with free concert tickets and equipment, Sheeran took to the stage of Ruth Eckerd Hall.

A full 11-piece band, including a string section, was already waiting for him. He absolutely wanted to start with “Subtract”, as it was meant to sound.

“I think it matters more than, you know, ‘Bad Habits’ or ‘Shape of You,'” he said. “I understand that an album like this belongs in an isolated space, but it’s great to be able to play it in a room like this.”

A few weeks back, the Grammy-winning artist became the subject of a new Disney+ documentary series, “Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All.” He also recently dismissed two lawsuits accusing him of plagiarizing Marvin Gaye. None of those updates mention Sheeran.

Instead, he told fans the story behind each new song.

“This album was written during a period of my life that was definitely the most challenging period to live through,” Sheeran said. “But I think I look back at it and this record [like] you’ve really found something beautiful in something [chaotic] And terrible.

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In a plain white T-shirt and cargo pants, Sheeran spoke and sang candidly to the crowd, as if he was sharing observations from therapy with a friend.

Next to “Eyes Closed”, he described walking the pubs of West London still hoping to visit his friend who had died. Before “The End of Youth”, he stated that he felt like an adult for the first time after experiencing the sudden death of a loved one, despite Sheeran being a 31-year-old father at the time.

He revisits both his friend’s funeral and band practice where he learns that his pregnant wife has a tumor.

“I don’t think grief is something where you’re allowed two weeks and then you have to keep going,” she said before “Life Goes On.”

The audience was immersed in silence, some were singing or standing. Some wiped away tears. As Sheeran said, it was hard not to think about the people in his life who had passed away.

Really like the grief process, the pain came in waves, punctuated by moments of relief. Sheeran actually smiled during “Dusty”, as he stomped his foot as he sang about spinning vinyl records in the morning while feeding his daughter “oatmeal..or oatmeal, sorry”.

“Everyone having fun?” he said at one point. “I’m assuming people are coming to the show tomorrow. By the jump, tomorrow I promise you’re going to be like, ‘Oh, I’m in a good mood.’ Tonight is totally different.

Part Two: Sheeran Turns Up the Atmosphere With Hits

Ed Sheeran performs his new album, Subtract, at Ruth Eckard Hall in Clearwater on Friday, May 19, 2023. The record was produced by The National's Aaron Dessner, who produced Taylor Swift's
Ed Sheeran performs his new album, Subtract, at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Friday, May 19, 2023. The record was produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, who also worked on Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” and “Evermore” albums. , [ GABRIELLE CALISE | Times ]

If the first part 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 let you down.”

As soon as he finished “subtracting”, the entire audience broke into a standing ovation for the first time since his appearance. Sheeran hugged his band members and shook hands as he exited the stage.

Then it was just him and his equipment.

The crowd was on its feet as Sheeran watched some of his biggest singles from the past decade. He built each song from scratch, recording layers of looping sounds: a guitar riff, a keyboard melody, the beats of his palm against the acoustic guitar body.

It was time for a hit – yes, “Bad Habits” too.

Sheeran belted out seven of his old favourites, getting a big song with “The A Team” and also a big dance party for “Shape of You”. The highlight was a sultry rendition of “Bloodstream”, flashing red lights as Sheeran strummed his guitar.

For the encore, they busted out “The Parting Glass”, a tune both Scottish and Irish sing to wrap up an event with friends.

“Good night,” he sang. “And happiness be to you all.”

Ed Sheeran’s Subtraction Tour Setlist

  1. “boat”
  2. “salt water”
  3. “eyes closed”
  4. “Life Goes On”
  5. “Dusty”
  6. “The End of Youth”
  7. “color blind”
  8. “curtains”
  9. “threshold limit”
  10. “Spark”
  11. “Vega”
  12. “sycamore”
  13. “no strings”
  14. The Hills of Aberfeldy”
  15. “a team”
  16. “shudder”
  17. “thinking too much”
  18. “Excellent”
  19. “blood flow”
  20. “your size”
  21. “Bad Habits”
  22. “the parting Glass”
  23. “Afterglow”

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