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Sunday, March 01, 2020

Kate Tempest (part of the New Zealand Festival) – Michael Fowler Centre – Monday 24 February 2020

Photo: Matt Grace / NZ Festival of The Arts

She’s back.  The last time East Londoner Kate Esther Calvert, aka Kate Tempest, was here in Wellington it was 2016, and she played to a small but perfectly appreciative group at the now dear departed Bodega bar.  Despite album accolades and a Ted Hughes poetry award (for ‘Brand New Ancients’) she was still pretty well unknown back then.  But reports at the time hint at her awesome potential.  Now she’s stronger, more intense, and more awesome!  Maybe she’s not quite a household name. Yet. After tonight people will be talking.

The first thing you notice, when she walks out on the MFC stage, is that she’s not the shy, demure young woman from her publicity photos.  Dressed from head to black in combat gear, short cropped hair (as opposed to the girlish red locks) she’s street tough and ready for the battle.

Yet her initial candour is demure, calm and humbling.  She immediately thanks everyone for every journey made to see this gig and then she dedicates the night to Boxer Tyson Fury, who won the World Heavyweight Championship last night. A ‘prem’ baby, she tells us, Tyson was named by his father, and born into boxing – a fighter from the start. His career spiralled from success to success.  Then he fell from grace, turned to drugs, alcohol and depression took control.  He went down a rabbit hole so deep he thought he’d never come back.  But last night he did. This was her inspiration.  She’d been in that place , too.  Tempest told us this, to prepare us for the journey ahead, as she readied us for the ride through her own depression, dating insecurity, BREXIT, hate speech, xenophobia, and living a modern life, flanked by consumerism, narcissism, fake truths and new age spiritualism.  She’ll cover a lot of ground.
Tempest has been doing this a long time, starting out at open mic gigs at the tender age of 16.  Since then she’s released four albums, five poetry collections and a novel.  She has a cult-like following, yet doesn’t attract the usual book-worm crowds.  Perhaps because her mix of rave-techno, poetry, spoken work and common-day lyrics resonate so clearly with such a wide audience.  Checking around tonight’s room, this was mostly a young ‘Glastonbury’ group, peppered with a few out of place Boomers.  Perhaps they stumbled in on a whim and a reason to use up the final ticket in their 10-trip concession.  What they made of the show was anyone’s guess.   
Her delivery is a “barrage of profundity” over dazzling techno-rhythms, styled with exact, expressive phrasing that rolls of the tongue like a Shakesperean soliloquy filtered through the banter of a cockney barfly.  Elegant and straight-up. Occasionally, You think of Mike Skinner, from The Streets but mostly its all her own work.  There is no real comparison.
Once the intro speech is over, she launches in, with not stopping for breaks or chatter with the punters.  Her mission controls are set for the heart of the sun. 
Tempest was supported tonight by an un-named female musician/DJ who lurks behind keyboards and controllers brewing up a serious and intoxicating potion of hard and soft tech-beats to accompany Tempest’s delivery.  Framed by a red moon, on a stage that endlessly leaches London style dock-fog, she kicks off with the catastrophic paranoia of ‘Europe Is Lost’, ‘We Die’ and ‘Ketamine for Breakfast’ – all from 2016’s stunning apocalyptic electric song cycle album ‘Let The Eat Chaos’.  The concept of the album follows seven individuals who all live on the same street who have never met each other before. But then at 4:18 in the morning, a huge storm causes everyone to leave their homes and meet for the very first time.  A constant theme in her work becomes apparent – loneliness, self-awareness, depression – ailments of modern living.  When you contemplate this in relation to her story about Tyson Fury and her own confession that she, herself was dealing with depression.  So these poems/songs felt even more personal.
There are moments where you feel genuinely sad, happy or helpless for these characters.  That’s all on her.  The performance gets across.  Her lines are ear worms, and mottos, cleverly twisted around these infectious beats.

Her set contained other earlier works, too, including ‘Marshall Law’ (from the 2014 Mercury Prize nominated album ‘Everybody Down’), ‘Grubby’ and was interwoven with another intense delivery, this time the apocalyptic ‘Tunnel Vision’ – about humanity’s intended destruction of the planet through consumerism and greed: “Will not stop until we’ve beaten down/The planet into pellets”.

This is Tempest in full flight.  The huge red disk on the stage behind her is coloured like a dying sun.  Many times the stage will bleed into blood red and trans morph to seedy blues and back again.   The audience members who have crept to the front to dance to the techno beats are stunned like deer in headlights, mesmerized by her lyrical weaving.  Her work, in part, is a call to action, a response to “the angry tension of being alive” in our precarious world (as The Guardian quoted). You can’t escape that feeling. 

But throughout the show there are many shades of dark and light.  The second half is entirely focused on her latest album, the Rick Rubin produced ‘The Book Of Traps And Lessons’ (which came out last August), starting with the very personal ‘Thirsty’, about meeting and falling for a woman, despite not looking.  She gives us quick and slow stanzas, some sung, some rapped, some spoken.   It’s a common story, told as if it only happened yesterday.  Tempest tells us how she met her, almost accusingly, but also tenderly: 

So, I was sat there at the bar with my forehead on my wrist/ Thinking I had given all I had in me to give/ When I saw her/ Cross the floor like a firework exploding in slow motion/ She touched me on the shoulder/And I started to live “ 

Save that one, kids, and use it for your wedding speech. 

Her new album shows a calmer voice, with more deliberate empathy.  She’s still raging, and sometimes at herself, but she has a quiver in her vocals to let you know that this time the current injustices of the world are too hard to beat, we just seem to find ourselves always beaten up.  The best we can do is stand up and brush our selves off, try again. 

Accompanied by swirling circus music, the title track ‘I Trap You’ raises a few smiles.  Tempest revels in the delivery of this one as she twists the concept of ‘Love’ into a model of entrapment.  She’s very still, so that each syllable can be savored.  Unlike the earlier work, which has a hip-hop flavour, this one is presented with the irreverence of a Pam Ayres poem.  It’s a cheeky move.  The audience join in, with her closing stanza, recognizing the desperation of a relationship augmented by mobile technology: 

I think I am whole now/ I think I am more whole/ But I still check my phone 17 times a minute/ To see if you called and I missed it/ Trap/ Love is a self-made thing/Love is a self-made trap”

Tempest takes us through the album, with all its changes in tempo, moods and topics.  She covers love, mental health and returns again to consumerism and the evil manipulations of our politicians and business chiefs. 

Downstairs the merch stand has T-shirts that state 

“Our Leaders Aren’t Even Pretending Not To Be Demons”, a line from ‘Three sided Coin’.  

How right she was.  I felt she really knew that the anniversary of the Christchurch shootings is coming up.  This is a poem about the origins of BREXIT but it also felt so close to home when she warned us “When people are lost they need people to join/ But beware of the Three Sided Coin/ And when people are hurt they need people to blame/But beware of the fear you can't name.” A clear reference to extremist groups, hate speech and casual racism.      

Her DJ builds an unbearable tension through ‘Lessons’ and ‘Holy Elixir’ climbing to a glass breaking crescendo of repeating techno chaos before dropping away to the beautiful and calm piano chords that underlie the very optimistic closer, ‘People’s Faces’, about how Tempest finds peace and hope among the people in her streets and stations, despite the barrage of hate she must endure online and in every form of media.

I will admit, I went into tonight’s show completely unprepared and was blown away. Now I want to read more and list to more of Tempest’s work.  She has a clear, open vision and a voice that’s accessible and true.  It’s a voice from the street, not the ivory towers and made even more palatable with tasty beats and a conscious hip-hop swagger.  She makes no bones about flying her rainbow colours, normalising her sexual preferences and relationships. 

“Is Kate Tempest a rapper, a poet, a spoken word artist or a lit fuse? Whatever she is, she’s undeniably intent on delivering urgent messages that cut through apathy like a honed knife.”  So went the teaser lines to tonight’s show.  Did we get a definitive answer.  Well, no.  And yes.  She’s all of the above. 

Her poetry, and music, fits neatly into the crisp soundbites fodder that social media demands, yet convention audiences are also at home with her messages. The show finishes with a standing ovation.  Tempest is forced to come back out – not for an encore but to thank the crowd, blushing, and overwhelmed.  She deserves the praise.  Here’s looking forward to her next project. 

Set List

Europe is Lost
We Die
Marshall Law
(First half)
Ketamine For Breakfast
(Preceded by the first half of Tunnel Vision)
The Beigeness
Tunnel Vision

(Second half)
The Book of Traps and Lessons
Keep Moving Don't Move
Brown Eyed Man
Three Sided Coin
I Trap You
All Humans Too Late
Hold Your Own
Holy Elixir
People's Faces

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