In 2012, a hard-strumming British singer named Ed Sheeran performed his first Los Angeles gig at the tiny Hotel Cafe, capacity 165.
Roughly a year later, the young beatbox troubadour sold out the Nokia Theatre on his 22nd birthday -- capacity 7,100. On Wednesday, he returned to an effusive reception from about 20,000 fans at Staples Center. At his rate, he'll be playing multiple nights at Dodger Stadium by the time he hits 30.
Of course, Sheeran is no stranger to big arenas. Taylor Swift, who collaborated with him on her song "Everything Has Changed," invited him to open her recent Red Tour. He accrued thousands of new fans, many of whom seem to have fallen hard for him.
Those fans, many of them teenage girls and twenty-something young women, sang every word to his sly love songs and candlelit confessionals. The singalong was so strong, at peak moments Staples might have been housing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Not bad for a shaggy redhead with a guitar, a microphone and a magic sampler that allows him to loop and build songs on the fly. His gift? Standing alone on a stage double the size of the Hotel Cafe itself, Sheeran is capable of working the room like it was a pub.
Performing from his new studio album, "x," and his debut, "+," Sheeran sang and strummed, one young Grammy-nominated dude lapping up the energy and doubling it back on the crowd. An artist who was schooled as a teen busking in London, he plays guitar like it's an extra appendage. And while his rise has been the stuff of dreams, it's not altogether surprising given his charisma.
The first words out of his mouth at Staples set the course, both a warning and a confession: "I'm a mess right now, inside out," he sang, and when he did, his fans joined in, some identifying with this early revelation, others privately positive that their love could fix him.
Such give and take is part of Sheeran's allure: He confessed, they identified. When, during "Drunk," he sang, "I wanna be drunk when I wake up on the right side of the wrong bed," an audible gush moved through the arena.
During "Bloodstream," he banged the body of his guitar and recorded its hard bass thump, then looped the sound to build a rhythm. Stepping to a second microphone connected to his sampler, Sheeran layered his voice in harmony, piling octaves. As that looped, he strummed his guitar in double time and activated a sampler with a foot pedal, multiplying six strings until they sounded like 96. He rapped convincingly. Close your eyes and it sounded like a dozen Sheerans popping.
For all his energy and magnetism, though, Sheeran seldom traffics in hard messages or cutting lines. By the time Bob Dylan was Sheeran's age, he'd already written "Gates of Eden" and "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," among others. Sheeran's work is notably wimpier; he's less the stereotypical "angry young man" playing what Dylan once described as "finger-pointin' songs" than the boy-next-door -- less Bruce Springsteen, more James Taylor.
He's supremely polite and genuine onstage -- he thanked his guitar tech with a smile every time they exchanged instruments -- and most moms and dads ferrying their kids to the show no doubt came away relieved that such a nice young man had won their child's heart. Prior to his encore, Sheeran even thanked those who might want to leave early to beat traffic.
But few bothered. The troubadour had yet to deliver his breakout hit, "The A Team." An empathetic song about love and addiction, Sheeran played it simply and beautifully. And even if he didn't have to sing it -- the assembled thousands nearly drowned him out -- he did so. That's just the kind of dude he is.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit