REVIEW: Ed Sheeran breaks records, brings Mathematics Tour to Levi’s Stadium

Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran performs at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sept. 16, 2023. Steve Carlson/STAFF.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Leave it to Ed Sheeran to stand in front of 77,000 people and make time stand still.

The English singer-songwriter brought the Mathematics Tour (+-=÷x) to Levi’s Stadium Saturday, drawing the venue’s largest audience ever. As he opened with the awe-striking “Tides,” it was easy to lose sight of the tens of thousands in the crowd that night. It was as if, in that moment, it were just you, Sheeran and his guitar—and the adrenaline rush of the first few notes.

Sheeran’s South Bay stop marked the trifecta of major shows at Levi’s Stadium this summer, with Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour and Beyonce’s Renaissance World Tour, both of which turned Santa Clara into a spectacle equipped with mind-bending production, backup dancers and shimmery outfit changes. Knowing Sheeran’s tender lyricism and folk-pop slash soft-rock scoring, it was expected his production wouldn’t be the same as theirs. So how did the Mathematics Tour execute a show of stadium-size caliber? Just take a look at the sum of its parts.

Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran performs at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sept. 16, 2023.

Compared to his stripped down gig in Oakland the night before, Saturday’s show involved an impressively engineered in-the-round stage design. The platform revolved like a giant lazy susan, so every rotation gave fans on the floor a chance to be face-to-face with the musician. Up top was a 360-degree halo display and six double-sided screens shaped like guitar plectrums that broadcasted closeup views for those up high. And it wasn’t long until pyro shot out for hard rock cut “BLOW,” off No.6 Collaborations Project.

Though massive in scale, every detail made it easy for fans to zero in on Sheeran’s performance, keeping it intimate. But enough about numbers and specs. At the root of it all, the magic came from Sheeran, his guitar and his intricate loop pedal setup.

The concept of the Mathematics Tour was simple: to showcase Sheeran’s work across the last 12 years. His most recent release, 2023’s Subtract, marks the last in his series of albums named after a mathematical operation. While the set wasn’t in chronological order, Sheeran’s performance was separated by songs played with a full band and songs played solo—the former being a relatively new thing for the singer-songwriter.

Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran performs at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sept. 16, 2023.

“I’ve got the band on tour and the reason is, I’ve made a lot of collaborations in my life,” Sheeran explained. “I’ve always toured solo; it’s always just been me and a loop pedal and a guitar. … But when I put the setlist together, there were no No. 6 Collaborations [songs], or any collaborations because they require a band, so I thought that was a bit of a shame, so we’ve jammed out a few.”

The two opening songs were played with Sheeran’s band—drummer Mark Pusey, keyboardist Ashton Miranda, bassist Jon Cox and guitarists Curtis Cumberbatch and Mitch Parks—who were located below the stage masts, a la an orchestra pit. With the group, each song erupted like a cinematic anthem featuring Sheeran as the invincible protagonist.

He then moved onto the first solo segment of his performance, his sound still full and fervorous, the crisp tone of his guitar strings searing straight into your soul. Sheeran also gave a rundown on his loop station, the pièce de résistance of his solo production.

Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran performs at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sept. 16, 2023.

“Everything you hear tonight is completely live,” Sheeran said while demonstrating layers of sounds on his loop pedals. “There is no backing track whatsoever. It is made live on the spot. It’s controlled with my feet, and at the end, it’s deleted and it will not be the same next week.

Sheeran covered a lot of ground in the first solo portion, playing a total of eight songs pulled from Plus, Times, Divide, Equals and Subtract. He started with “I’m A Mess,” whose riffs of bare-boned tenacity were met with a spirited clap-along from the crowd. “Shivers’” hot-and-cold energy was complemented by icy blue and fiery red fractals displayed on the big screens. Up next came a poignant performance of “The A Team,” Sheeran’s 2011 breakthrough single and an undoubted fan favorite.

On feisty Times track “Don’t,” Sheeran snuck in a cheeky cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” He later brought keyboardist and musical director Miranda back out to play Subtract‘s “Boat,” before having the whole band back for the next segment.

Ed Sheeran

Ed Sheeran performs at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sept. 16, 2023.

A full play-by-play of the songlist wouldn’t be news for big fans, dubbed Sheerios, given that Sheeran was already on his penultimate show of the North American leg of the Mathematics tour. He kept his two-hour-and-15-minute set mostly consistent with previous shows, but left room for spontaneous banter and surprises.

In between songs, he often told charming backstories. He reflected on his early days of playing to empty rooms before his global breakthrough with “The A Team.” He expressed genuine shock about breaking the attendance record at Levi’s, which was even bigger than when the stadium hosted Super Bowl 50 in 2016.

For the first time ever, Sheeran played “Are You Entertained,” his collaboration with opener Russ. South Bay fans were also treated to a rare performance of “I Feel Fire,” a song that Russ had sampled. Sheeran dedicated the cut to the opener’s parents, who were in the crowd.

At halftime, the singer-songwriter switched back to his solo setup to play five songs, including Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” originally written by Sheeran. The band reconvened one last time for “Afterglow,” before Sheeran stepped off stage leaving the whole stadium illuminated in amber tones.

Maisie Peters

Maisie Peters performs at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sept. 16, 2023.

He returned for a three-song encore donning a 49ers-colored jersey with “Autumn Variations” and “29” on the back, in lieu of his forthcoming release later this month. He saved some of his most energetic songs for last: “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” “Shape of You” and “Bad Habits.” Colorful lights, bursts of math symbol visuals and rapid-fire pyrotechnics set the scene for the encore’s vivid mood as Sheeran and the crowd reached a volume unmatched to any other moment from the night. The echoes resonated like they would in a small club show, as Sheeran made one last lap around the stage and gave a fond farewell.

Maisie Peters opened Saturday’s show, playing in between dates on her own summer tour. With an acoustic guitar in hand, the English singer-songwriter wore a 49ers jersey with a black pleated skirt and kicked off her set with the poppy and upbeat “Body Better,” off her latest album, The Good Witch. “I’m Trying (Not Friends)” came next, with Maisie Peters ditching the guitar to dance around the stage. She then gave her label, Sheeran’s Gingerbread Man Records, a shoutout before jumping into “Love Him I Don’t.”

While her set was pure pop bliss, final cuts “Cate’s Brother” and “Lost The Breakup” had Peters channeling rockstar energy—hair flips, headbanging and all.

Russ played next, switching the vibe to a hip-hop-heavy set.

Russ Vitale

Russ performs at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. on Sept. 16, 2023.

“Middle fingers up!” the New Jersey rapper yelled as he walked onstage. Dressed in camo cargo pants and a T-shirt that read “Santiago made it to stadiums,” the artist, whose name is Russ Vitale, was backed by bass-heavy beats as he kept a steady flow on fan favorites like “CIVIL WAR,” “Missin You Crazy” and “What They Want.”

Clearly, the rapper pulled up to a crowd ready to throw its hands up and have a good time. A couple fans held signs that read “Tell Chloe we say hi,” to which Russ responded excitedly.

“That’s my Frenchie!” he yelled, before performing “Fatima,” a cut he said was inspired by Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.

Russ also reflected on his career, giving thanks to Sheeran for taking him on tour after he had sampled Sheeran’s “I See Fire” back in 2014.

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