Highlights from Hackney: Ed Sheeran's Christmas Gathering
Updated: Dec 28, 2021
Ed Sheeran has conquered pop, and music in general, in a way that no ordinary artist has. To move musical genres, sentiments and charts the way that Ed Sheeran has done, and to the extent he has done it, is to work in a way beyond most’s musical comprehension.
And that’s why it felt particularly fitting that tonight, at his first headline show back in two and a half years, we found ourselves in the house of the holy, watching Ed Sheeran perform under stained glass selections of biblicism and in front of a golden collage of the life of Christ, flanked by arches illuminated in golden hue. It was the St. John at Hackney where this PR dream took place, with MM invited to an exclusive and intimate Ed Sheeran Christmas Gathering.
The pre-gig wait, though always due to feel like an eternity, felt particularly stretched out on the night. Exclamations of “that’s the time we came in?!” and disparate chants of “we want Ed!” echoed around parts of the room.
There was a palpable and heightened sense of excitement, specifically that Ed Sheeran, the man who for some might as well have his own stained glass mural, was somewhere in the wings, about to grace the stage. As this built, random pockets of cheers, claps and shouts started to build too; the man of the hour being comprehensively in demand.
We know the kind of reach and broad appeal that the music of Ed Sheeran has, and the crowd tonight demonstrated that to full effect. There was such a beautifully refreshing mix of ages, accents, dialects and passing thought, creating an immersive cross section of the fanbase of Ed Sheeran, and as an audience member this embedded you in an environment where it was impossible to feel out of place.
We will always be advocates of capturing digital memories at gigs. This is the contemporary way of doing things, and almost all of the time it doesn't get in the way of being there, in the moment, appreciating what is in front of you. Where this branches into an issue though is the propensity of an audience to record every single moment, habitually, experiencing the gig primarily through the lens of their camera. Unfortunately, this was happening in parts of the audience at a substantially more noticeable rate than at most gigs, and you could feel the dampening effect this had on those around them. It's never nice to have to 'put up' with something at a gig, and small parts of the audience seemed to have to do that in place of affixing their attention to the stage.
This show demonstrated, perhaps accentuated by the small size of the crowd, that Ed has gotten the song in-betweens to a tee. Bigger picture, it was particularly nice to be in receipt of this from a man who at one stage was open about not quite knowing what to do with his
hands when they weren't on his guitar. He started with the fact that he would be 'playing songs that hopefully you all know', as if the man in front of us hasn't time and time again been the era-defining voice that he has. There would often be a 'wow' (or some such surprised utterance) when a particular song ended in resounding success, as if it caught Ed Sheeran by surprise that Ed Sheeran just did what Ed Sheeran does.
His in-between’s gave the audience quite deep insights into how he views the world and his music, which to a lot of the dedicated Ed Sheeran fanbase, is their world too. These gleanings felt as much part of the exclusivity as the fact that this was called a 'Christmas Gathering’. The fact that, for example, 'Perfect' was written in studio time that was dedicated to a completely different purpose that fell through (a TV Series soundtrack, in this case). 'Perfect', and everything that that song is, was almost an accident.
It doesn’t take long when listening to Ed Sheeran, in his music or otherwise, to come across the feeling that he has perfectly described something you’ve felt, or something you never want to feel again. In this instance, he spoke about the writing of a song on the new record being written at such a pace that 'it took an abnormally short amount of time to write that I kind of thought It was shit’. Encapsulating in the most understandable terms the classic impostor that creeps in on unconditional grounds and profoundly affects how you see your work. It made us stop for a second and think about the beauty of Ed Sheeran’s musical communication: personal to a degree you struggle to understand, but told in a way where understanding is the easiest thing.
Outside of all of this, the thing that stood out about this show, as you can imagine, was the music itself.
Martin Cox's Full Recording of Ed Sheeran's Christmas Gathering
Ed Sheeran has that sound acoustically that makes pretty much anything that is a byproduct of his vocal chords and guitar sound familiar. A phenomenon no doubt helped along by the total ubiquity of his Sound in today’s musical landscape (and, to be fair, the landscape as it has been for the last decade).
Live especially, the sound was just absolutely cataclysmic of the expression of love. Before the show we heard people in the audience asking one another in complete sincerity if they were 'going to cry', or if they could just about manage to keep it together. We saw people in the audience Facetime with their loved ones, not just to show the song that was currently playing, but to experience all that it was with them too. We saw, most poignant of all, friends, family and loved ones enter into automatic embrace, eyes fixed on the stage, but hearts, we're sure, fixed entirely on one another.
It was the fabled power of Ed Sheeran’s music in full effect, right in front of our eyes. There was a particular moment where Ed unplugged from all of his audio systems to go fully acoustic. Detached from all mics, the church was directed to fall silent, and willingly it did.
Then, he just… sang. The song was 'The Parting Glass', and in any event because of the lyrics and structure, it would always sound heavenly. But done in such a way where it was delivered mid-show, un-amplified and unfiltered, left us completely in awe. Seeing and hearing this, not even through a mic, nor a studio, but just through vocal chords that sent reverberations against the acoustics of God's architecture, was really special.
Zooming into the songs individually, it's less easy to pick out those individual moments of brilliance because it was the musical branch of the show as a whole that took centre stage. When it comes to the quality of music at a gig, Ed Sheeran is one of the safest bets you can make, with his baseline being absolutely and consistently excellent, often rising to definitive heights. Both the times we've seen Ed now, and the countless hours sunk into watching and listening to recorded live performances, show that he'll never dip into ‘just alright’, like we might see with other live performers. It's an unbroken flow of very high quality music.
Bloodstream in particular was excellent, as it has always lined up to be in the flesh. The build up was extraordinarily intense, peaking in that sweet spot just before overwhelming; all of your stimuli receptors sufficiently engaged. There was this interesting contrast to observe between the velocity of what was happening on and around the stage, and the relative stillness of the crowd watching. In the absence of the typically expected Music-Motor coordination, we could do nothing but marvel without much movement that would appropriately reflect the pace and dynamism on the stage. We, along with a large number of people, were simply grounded.
Overpass Graffiti was also a particularly emotional segment to the show, paired with afterglow - the song after which the man on the stage raised his mic to the audience with a smile, with that one gesture communicating to some everything that they could have wanted from their attendance on the night.
A similar occurrence took place during 'Thinking Out Loud', where after the lyric 'and the crowds won't remember my name', a smiley Ed was plastered by cheers from the audience made so in the knowledge that, all things considered, that will probably never happen. A consensus of timelessness is one of the most powerful sentiments in music, and in this room it was in the air in a big way, as if, because of who it concerned, it was the most rudimentary conclusion you could come to.
After the show, we caught a word with Some of Ed’s Sound Engineers, a team that has been together for about 10 years now, about the show and how it went.
There was an undertone to the conversation that, for them, it was just good to be back on the road, doing what they love. The headline was that the show was nothing but “good fun... reflected by what he did on stage", and this seemed to fit in with the fact that, though 'limited' to a small number of instruments, his look and sound just radiated a sense of liberation in the music and its delivery. We’ll never truly know the bounds of this, but over the course of the night it felt like we were watching an Ed Sheeran that was, musically, in the place he seems to operate his best in: completely his own.
And, generally speaking, the behind-the-scenes reflection on the success of the show was where the success lay for us too. There were elements that could have been better, sure, but what remained right at the very top was the music of Ed Sheeran, and tonight’s show
demonstrated that try as the times might, it shouldn't be going anywhere any time soon.
*📸 Martin Cox