Ed Sheeran is better than "The A Team."
That folksy pop single, which has nothing to do with the similarly named '80s TV show starring Mr. T, is the reason why most of us know the British singer-songwriter on this side of the Atlantic. Yet, it doesn't even begin to summarize all that he has to offer.
To get a proper sense of his talent, one needs to see this 21-year-old rising star in concert. I know that sounds cliché, like something Phish "Phans" would say about their favorite band, but it's also true.
Sheeran's show Friday at the Warfield in San Francisco was nothing short of a revelation. He was alone onstage, with just a guitar in his hands, and yet he still managed to absolutely mesmerize the capacity crowd of some 2,200 throughout the 90-minute concert.
Of course, the tune that drew the highest-pitched screams, from the heavy contingent of preteens and teens in attendance, was "The A Team," the smash hit that is up for song of the year at the Grammy Awards on Sunday. Yet, fans seemed nearly as jazzed about all the other offerings. That's mighty impressive for an artist who has released only one full-length studio album, 2011's "+."
"My name is Ed," Sheeran told fans midway through the first offering, "Give Me Love." "My job for the next two hours is to entertain you. Your job for the next two hours is to be entertained."
It's hard to say who handled their assignment better. Let's just call it a draw and look forward to seeing Sheeran when he opens for Taylor Swift's Red Tour later this year. (Swift still hasn't announced a Bay Area date, but a likely time frame would be mid-to-late August, when the country-pop star is in the Golden State to perform in Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento.)
Sheeran, who is already a massive star in his native U.K., exhibited many different sides during the Warfield show. He showed that he can croon a sensitive ballad ("The A Team") and fashion a boy-band-friendly love song ("U.N.I."). He's particularly adept at the latter, which is likely why he's scored songwriting credits on both of One Direction's albums. (He also co-wrote "Everything Has Changed" with Swift for "Red.")
He's at his very best, however, when he's building unbelievably complex, beat-happy rockers right before fans' very eyes. He uses "live loops," where he records himself playing or singing a little something and then plays that segment back to accompany his next move. He might start with particular guitar rhythm, or a percussive beat hand-drummed on the body of his guitar, and then combine it with a vocal line or a different guitar part.
Then he keeps right on constructing, using his foot pedals to control the many different live recordings, until what you see onstage certainly doesn't match what you hear. It's still just Sheeran up there, but what you are hearing is a massively rich full-band sound. Others do similar things in concert, but very few are as successful at it. Sheeran accomplished the feat several times at the Warfield, but the standout efforts were the herculean rockers "Grade 8" and "You Need Me, I Don't Need You."
His vocal technique is reminiscent of both Dave Matthews (on the rockers) and Damien Rice (on the ballads), but not so much so that you could call him a clone of either. He doesn't hide his influences (which reportedly include Rice) and he clearly finds inspiration in many different kinds of music. I mean, who would suspect that Sheeran would cover a signature tune by one of the greatest jazz-blues female vocalists of all time?
"This song is by Nina Simone," Sheeran said midway through his rendition of "Be My Husband," from Simone's great 1965 effort, "Pastel Blues." "If you haven't heard of Nina Simone, go on iTunes, go on Amazon, and check out everything she's done."
Simone isn't the only artist worth checking out. As he proved on Friday at the Warfield, Ed Sheeran is also worth your time and effort.
Follow Jim Harrington at http://twitter.com/jimthecritic, www.facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.