Monday, February 24
I’d had people asking me about Kate Tempest ever since she was announced to be part of the 2020 NZ Festival. I’d seen her five years back when she was lesser known out here and it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen. So all I’d been telling people was that she was an English spoken word artist: A novelist, playwright, poet and performer. And that most importantly she was a firebrand. And that she understood the human condition on such a profound level that her performance would knock you out. I then hoped that this show would be at least as good as the one I’d seen previously.
It was a whole new level.
Tempest started the night with an acknowledgment of the energy in the room, welcoming everyone and thanking them for whatever journey brought them to the event – be they a quivering-lip word whisperer there to hang on every line or a Plus-One enthused to find a new favourite artist Tempest was going to do her best to give good show. And though I’d seen her before, and expected big things, this was the sign that we were in for something special; proof of the empathy that resounds, that informs her very best work. She also told a story of Tyson Fury winning the heavyweight title – reclaiming it after a spectacular fall from grace: A mental breakdown so profound that he announced his suicidal thoughts by caveating that even his five children couldn’t keep him alive. Drugs and booze and weight ballooning, his career in tatters, he returned to fighting shape and them to the ring to reclaim his Gypsy King title and now the World Heavyweight Boxing Champ once again.
It was an apt tale to tell, quite aside from Tempest being a boxing fan and admitting to similar battles with anxiety that threatened to crush her while on stage. For this was a prizefighting performance and she was there to give poetry a succession of standing eight-counts. We were on her side before she’d even – officially – started.
And then she started. Europe Is Lost and Ketamine For Breakfast, now greeted like greatest hits. Circles and Tunnel Vision, a mixtape of moods and modes from her earlier works. Just Tempest stalking the stage with purpose, a preacher, a rapper, a poet, a philosopher. And a synth-player in support issuing the big bouncing rhythms for a few fans to rush the stage and get their sway on (Tempest laughed, acknowledging “the ravers”).
The virtuoso build of this set saw her most recent album – The Book of Traps and Lessons performed in its entirety. This is where we got something beyond the earlier character studies. They’re fine. The best of them are amazing – clever, funny, devastating. But now with the focus on herself and her relationships and how she sees the world we have honest, naked, powerful words – and performance:
“Our minds are racing into the dead/We hurl everything/Against the stop of the blank hand that muffles the mouth/But we can’t win/‘I see how blind I’ve been’, said all prophets, too late/All humans, too late”
Tempest does not sing. But she writes choruses. She has refrains. She has everything a song needs to make itself sing and she is equal parts writing and performance – Kate Tempest is therefore the perfect storm.
I Trap You, All Humans Too Late and the valedictorian Hold Your Own (in her set forever but finally on record too now as part of the latest song-cycle) was almost the intellectual peak of the evening. The philosophical flow matched by the daring ability of the performer to not only gather these thoughts and be prepared to share them but to spit them with such great skill, alternating pathos with fury; a soft disgust that takes aim at the self as well as the world of politics and consumerism that has shaped that person.
But then there was Firesmoke – a cool-charm hip-hop groove with the most gorgeous love song peeking out through pure poetry.
And as a final emotional peak we had People’s Faces. Very cleverly Tempest almost stumbles towards singing here – a cheeky little half-croon. But it’s the words. And the meaning. The message and the delivery. The blur of it all. But such clarity. Such honesty.
She left it all on the stage and there could never be an encore – nor any need for one. But the applause was such, the standing ovation so instant and definite that she returned to say a heartfelt thank you. To say that she was touched and thrilled and honoured, that she hated encores and there wouldn’t be one but that she hoped the energy from the room would be taken out into the world for the audience members to continue their night tethered to that collective spirit.
Four years ago to the day I saw Prince in one of his final ever shows. He gave us a clinic in the power of music; to connect, to make the day a little better. Tonight Tempest did that very same thing – with (her) words.
When the NZ Festival gets it right – it gets it so right.
When Kate Tempest speaks – or raps, or sermonises, or very nearly sings – you listen. You listen and you laugh, and you love and you sweep tears of joy from your face; tears of being almost overwhelmed by the breath-taking focus and force and craft and heart and humanity.
I’m misting up again just thinking about it.
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron