Before he plays, fluffy white clouds hang in a pink sky, Green Day’s ‘Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)’ drips from the speakers and everything feels a bit lovely, in a sort of cosy, Great British Bake Off way. When, after opening track ‘Castle On The Hill’, he admits to the crowd that’s he’s “very nervous and excited”, thousands of people say, “Aww,” all at the same time. His granddad is in the crowd, and gets a shout out from the stage. You expect at least a dozen people got engaged during ‘Thinking Out Loud’.
But don’t be fooled: Ed’s big moment proves he’s got fire in his belly and a rare type of confidence. Not since Kanye West has someone stood unaccompanied on that massive stage and done it all on their own (bar a brief appearance from Celtic band Beoga), in their way, without compromise. For Sheeran, that means it’s just him, his checked shirt, his loop pedal and his tiny acoustic guitar, which he beats like a drum and plays so vigorously that strings ping off. The rest of the space is occupied by an arrangement of huge screens, which flick through white-framed images like an a scroll of Polaroids.
Early on, Ed coyly appeals for those in the audience who know his songs to sing along, and for those who don’t to give them a chance. But we all know the songs. Such is the ubiquity of Sheeran’s music, you know far more tracks than you realise, especially ‘Shape Of You’, arguably the defining sound of 2017 even without a widely expected guest appearance from Stormzy.
Ed does his fair share of rapping anyway. For someone who broke through on the fringes of the grime scene, championed by SB:TV and a collaborator with Devlin, Wiley, Ghetts and JME, there’s a certain irony that he now finds himself competing with BBK, who simultaneously are showing The Other Stage how they shut down a festival. Ed’s willingness to throw caution to the wind and spit out a scattergun rap, or to knock out his knowingly hackneyed anthem for Irish bars, ‘Galway Girl’, while the Pyramid Stage is cheesily lit bright green, speak volumes about his self-confidence.
He at one point explains that he first played the festival six years ago at the Croissant Neuf stage, when ‘The A-Team’ – tonight sung along to in sweetly gentle tones by the swooning crowd – was the only one the 500 people present knew. His rapid ascent to headliner has raised surprisingly few eyebrows. Even Noel Gallagher, who once said he “couldn’t live in a world” where Ed was headlining three nights at Wembley before doing a complete U-turn – and knows a thing or two about eyebrows – would probably approve. Ed’s sheer skill is probably most on display in ‘Take It Back’, which he blends into Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ and Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ before, well, taking it back.
You might expect Sheeran to be overwhelmed at any point during a show this massive, but he isn’t. He was born to play stages like this, and tonight, he quietly and competently offers a masterclass in how to do it. You can argue about whether Ed Sheeran is the right kind of pop star, but it’s pointless because he does it himself in the hyper ‘Take It Back’, which says “I’m a singer that you never wanna see shirtless”. Don’t be fooled by that, or by the moment, early on, when he asks everyone in the crowd to light their phone torches so he can see how many there are. He knew we’d all be there.