Kate Tempest – Exhausting, Thrilling and Emotionally Ravaging

The genius of spoken word artist and Brit Award winner Kate Tempest lies in how masterfully her work marries the personal and the political, micro and macro.

Her solo performances are cinematic; panning outwards to survey the whole of society’s frivolities and failings through a wide-angled lens, then zooming close up on a shared moment between lovers, so beautifully intimate that it feels almost voyeuristic.

For Tempest, human connection is everything, and her desire to connect meaningfully with the Live at Leeds audience is evident from the moment she crosses the Momentum Stage.  “My name’s Kate; I’m very happy to be here with you.  I’ve got a special relationship with Leeds.  Every time I come here, I have a really amazing gig.” She is real, sincere, as South London as can be.  We are encouraged to put away our mobile phones, to be present, and to create a safe space for one another.

Tempest stuns us by confiding that two hours prior to the show, she learned that her friend had taken his own life. She asks us to generate good energy “to help him on his journey”, and I feel a palpable wave of sympathy course through the audience; her resilience and determination to continue are admirable, and we are willing her to make it through to the end.  We are all in this together now.

From the shadows of a barely-lit stage, Tempest delves into her set, accompanied by a DJ playing sparse, post-dubstep beats and sultry Nord piano.  The first poem is taken from Tempest’s new album, ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’ (out in June), and seems more directly autobiographical than the material on her two earlier, Mercury Music Prize-nominated LPs.  She describes meeting and being entranced by a woman who “crossed the floor like a firework exploding in slow motion”. There’s a warm, languorous sensuality to the precision with which Tempest drip-feeds us each line, and the poem’s unabashed romanticism immediately compels the audience.  The combination of vulnerability and empowerment she conveys is recognisable to anyone who has ever been in love: “I was standing two feet taller, like I’d never been afraid.”

More love poems appear later in the set, including ‘The Trap’ (“I called it love, I should have called it a trap… I trap you so much!”), and the sumptuous new single, ‘Firesmoke’.  “My visionary is a vision”, Tempest purrs over the hypnotic rhythm track. She tackles sex with the same rawness, understated honesty and directness as she wrestles with every other subject. It seems ridiculous in 2019 that a woman in mainstream popular culture, exploring eroticism and expressing her desires through her art, still seems surprising and transgressive. Nevertheless, in the dark auditorium of Leeds Beckett Students’ Union, this frank articulation of longing feels thrilling, modern and brave.  Tempest’s yearning and her attentiveness to her lover are tender and relatable. It’s a gorgeous performance.

Part of the Kate Tempest live experience is marvelling at how on earth she remembers all the words.  Tonight, her ability to remain completely present and word-perfect, even in the wake of her tragic news, makes her performance even more impressive.  Her fourth poem, ‘All Humans, Too Late’, must feel like acid on a gaping wound, so acutely does it depict disconnection, social breakdown and loneliness.  Tempest only just makes it through to the final line and then bursts into tears, and we all cry with her. It packs a punch, this one: “Our families don’t know us; our friends make us nervous; our partners are strangers.”  I can’t wait until the new album comes out, because I suspect that this is one of the best things she’s ever written.

Tear-stained and emotional, Tempest gathers herself and moves through a series of familiar poems from her award-winning back catalogue.  In ‘Ketamine for Breakfast’ and ‘We Die’, we are reunited with the characters that she so affectionately depicted in her novel ‘The Bricks That Built The Houses’ and on the album ‘Everybody Down’, but tonight her delivery is less frenetic than on the recording.  Tempest defies lazy categorisation, but I would describe this gig as more spoken word than rap, and it is all the better for it. The musical accompaniment enhances without distracting, the pace is more fluid and unhurried; Tempest is authentic and earnest. Even the popular single ‘Circles’ is slowed right down to great effect, although the audience knows this one and many people around me join in on the chorus.  Tempest is fully engaged, making eye contact and feeding off the audience’s energy.

Tempest’s new poem ‘Lessons’ cautions the privileged and powerful against resting on their laurels: “I have seen the lions turned to cubs and the hunters turned to prey / The lessons will come again tomorrow if they’re not learned today.”  She is arguably at her most vibrant as a performer when she’s political and angry, and this poem, along with a furious, impassioned performance of ‘Europe is Lost’, are two highlights of the night. A torrent of scarily profound and oh-so-relevant lyrics smack us around the ears like a heavyweight boxer: “All that is meaningless rules – we have learned nothing from history”; “No trace of love in the hunt for the bigger buck, here in the land where nobody gives a fuck”; “The water is rising, the elephants and polar bears are dying”.  It’s a depressing assessment of the damage wreaked by capitalism, austerity, climate change, celebrity culture and gentrification – but rather than lowering the mood, Tempest’s words light a fire under the audience. This is what makes her the voice of a generation: her talent for articulating the passions and anxieties of our time.

One of the things I love about Kate Tempest is her reverence for the human spirit; for everyday people going through their ordinary struggles, making the best job of life that they can, seeking out meaning and connection.  This is exemplified in the poem ‘Brand New Ancients’, which tonight feels electric, galvanising: “Every single person has a purpose in them burning”.

Lyrically, Tempest’s final poem is the one that I woke up the morning after the gig still thinking about.  Entitled ‘People’s Faces’, it references selfie culture, materialism and the influence of social media, arguing that “it’s not enough to imagine we’ll be happy when we’ve bought enough stuff”.  Tempest asks, “is a life well lived or is a life well displayed?” and I find myself pondering this question as I tweet about the gig on the bus journey home. Tempest’s parting line is a gift to her audience: “[There’s] so much peace to be found in people’s faces. My sanity’s saved, ‘cause I can see your faces.”

As my friends and I spill out of the venue onto Woodhouse Lane, we are all in agreement: that was an exhausting, thrilling, emotionally-ravaging performance, and Kate Tempest is one of the most important artists in the world right now.


All photographs by Mark Wheelwright.

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