Ed Sheeran keeps us all in the loop at the Hammersmith Apollo

Ed keeps us all in the loop: Ed Sheeran at the Hammersmith Apollo

Ed Sheeran: Hammersmith Apollo, London

Rating: 4 Star Rating

Ren Harvieu Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London

Ed Sheeran performs on stage at Hammersmith Apollo, where he calls the crowd his 'gospel choir'

Ed Sheeran performs on stage at Hammersmith Apollo, where he calls the crowd his ‘gospel choir’

The posters on the walls inside the Hammersmith Apollo invite Ed Sheeran’s fans, mostly girls whose GCSEs lie ahead of them, to film him performing his opening song and help ‘create one big fat fan video’.

Ten years ago, those posters would have carried grim warnings of the consequences for anyone taking a picture, never mind shooting a video.

Sheeran, still only 21, is on the fans’ side. He thanks not just everyone who has bought his album, but also those who stole it: ‘whether you bought it from Tesco’s or illegally downloaded it, thank you for knowing the words and singing them back’. He’s a boy of the people.

His album + has been in the chart for more than a year. Sheeran could fill the O2 if he felt like it, but he prefers to do five nights at Hammersmith. He could set prices at £35 to £50, but all tickets are £24. In the world of The Rolling Stones, that wouldn’t cover the booking fee.

From the outside, the Sheeran phenomenon is puzzling. He looks like a minor character in one of the big fantasy-film franchises, somewhere between a hobbit and a member of the Weasley family. His music is dogged acoustic pop in the Jack Johnson tradition, with the odd burst of polite rapping. If he hadn’t come along, there would have been no need to invent him.

In concert, though, he is more than the sum of his parts. Standing on stage all alone, he puts more gusto into the task than you get from some indie bands in a year. ‘For the next two hours,’ he announces, ‘my job is to entertain you.’

Soon, he is calling the crowd ‘my gospel choir’ and setting us tasks. When he first emerged, my col-league David Bennun likened him to Jamie Oliver, but this is more Gareth Malone. And it is similarly hard to dislike.

Ren Harvieu, from Manchester, has a hefty voice, drenched in the sixties

Ren Harvieu, from Manchester, has a hefty voice, drenched in the sixties

On about half the songs, he turns himself into a band, using a gizmo he calls the Loop Station. He slaps the wood of the guitar to lay down  a simple beat. He plays a sequence of chords and adds some backing vocals, from himself or the crowd. All this goes into a box on the floor, which he controls with his trainered foot. It’s simple but appealing, like watching Rolf Harris do a painting.

His strumming is rudimentary: there are toy guitars that make a better sound. His singing is variable: high and pure, if anonymous, when he does a traditional folk song, amiable and more characterful on his own stuff, and impressively slick when he goes into a freestyle rap. He has put in the hard yards – 312 gigs in 2009 – and it shows.

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The sense of a loop is not just  musical. Sheeran’s lyrics deal with life stages that lie just on the horizon for the fans, such as leaving school, becoming pregnant or seeing your loved one head for university.

On the surface, they are singing his words back at him; beneath it, he is singing their thoughts and fears back at them (‘everything I say is gonna sound awkward’). His better songs potter along for a while, then take off in the chorus. Shrewdly, he opens with one of them (Give Me Love) and ends with another (The A Team).

He lets one number ramble on for 15 minutes, getting carried away with his box of tricks, but the show as a whole starts and finishes bang on time. He ends by taking a picture of the fans, filming him: another loop.

Ren Harvieu, from Manchester, is the best new voice I’ve heard this year. Hefty, impassioned and drenched in the Sixties, it’s the voice Lana Del Rey would like to have, and could have if she spent time honing her craft.

At her biggest London show so far, Harvieu and a tight three-piece band channelled Roy Orbison and Dusty Springfield, though with the crowd seated the atmosphere was not as good as when she was playing the clubs in the spring. Her debut album, Through The Night, is warmly recommended.


Barbra Streisand: Release Me. Columbia, out now

In the notes to this collection of discarded recordings, Barbra Streisand explains she doesn’t give much thought to her music once she’s recorded it. But someone does, judging by the photos of a ‘private vault’, stacked with hundreds of master-tapes. The word is that her fretful perfectionism sent these cuts into the reject bin.

But she’s listened to some again and fans will be pleased with a 1970 take on Randy Newman’s I Think It’s Going To Rain Today and three songs from an unfinished third volume in her Broadway series.

Peter Gabriel: So – 25th Anniversary Edition. Real World, out tomorrow

The classic early line-up of Genesis debated touring in 2005 before Peter Gabriel, who left in 1975, said no. He may have been tempted had 1987’s So, with its saucy Motown pastiche Sledgehammer, not made him a superstar. Two bonus live discs find him enjoying a new lease of life that ensured he’d never need a reunion to pay the mortgage.

Steve Hackett, lead guitarist from 1970 to 1977, says his Genesis Revisited II (Inside Out, out tomorrow) HHH is ‘the Ring Cycle, but in rock’. It’s faithful, full-blooded and arguably a shade redundant.

Josephine: Portrait. Ark, out now

There’s a paragraph reserved in every new artist’s biography for influences, as if a love of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Bob Marley is all you need to channel their brilliance.

Born in Manchester to Liberian and Jamaican parents, 29-year-old Josephine Oniyama drops those names, along with those of Nigerian legends Fela Kuti and King Sunny Adé and gospel trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. But she is compelling in her own right, her voice full of interest and never forced, her songs assured and stylishly delivered.

Portrait eases naturally from the title track’s early-Sixties soul to  A Freak A’s blissfully unaffected acoustic pop to the twitchy West African highlife of Pepper Shaker.

Josephine shines in the middle of it all, making you listen again and again to check that she’s as undeniable as she sounds.

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