If you like your poetry dubstep-free and styled by old, dead geezers wearing cravats, look away now.
Kate Tempest is a modern magus and the cityscape she invokes is compelling. She pulls no punches in her acclaimed 2016 work, Let Them Eat Chaos, showing that dystopia has moved out of fiction, into the harsh reality of contemporary living. She is no narky naysayer, however, offering us a way through this nightmare, with a chance of redemption for all. Performing the album to a spellbound crowd at a sold-out O2 Academy in Bristol last night, she showed precisely the visceral sensitivity and acute perception that emboldened the BBC to give her a whole hour of prime Saturday screen time back in October.
Despite being sub-divided as tracks for the album as a practical concession to airplay and streaming, Let Them Eat Chaos is one long narrative and Tempest performed it as such, non-stop, the quiet moments offering the audience opportunities for spontaneous whooping. Whereas you'd conventionally expect to hear shards of the artist's persona between tracks, she inserted a gig's worth of f-bombed patter at the beginning, lauding Bristol's pivotal role in the genesis of her career and modestly thanking this 'gathering of strangers' for being present 'at the beginning of something [big] that started ten years ago'. In terms of being 'present', her appeal for the audience to live in the moment and keep their mobiles firmly pocketed, seeing and remembering things through retina and neuron only, was as affectionately received as the subsequent verse.
Tempest's work stands alone, but the tight-knit three-piece band of keyboards and electric drums certainly augments it, mood enhancing, helping to popularise and bridge the gap between page and stage. They created a suitably Bristolian musical backdrop, often redolent of the heavy dub and trip-hop of Massive Attack, Tricky and Portishead. On "Grubby", the refrain of Sister Sledge's "Thinking of You" took a different direction, refracting disco through the electronica and manic drums of Pendulum.
From the moment we were asked, paradoxically, to 'picture a vacuum', she was our world for an hour and her characters were our contemporaries. They were no caricatures, just warts-and-all embodiments of 2016 Britain. With widened eyes and directional arm outstretched, she was our tour guide, encouraging us not just to look, but truly to see what was around us. In "Lionmouth Door Knocker", she took us 'through the hallway,/ ancient wallpaper,/ nicotine gold', as much the antithesis of an estate agent as you could possibly ever imagine. "Ketamine for Breakfast" saw her with eyes screwed shut, sharing the agony of Jemma, 'Boiling in the chill of dawn,/ Sweating in the dole queue'. She gave it vehement bent-double, finger-pointing anger in "Europe is Lost", where the 'Boredofitall Generation/ the product of product placement/ and manipulation' had their cages firmly rattled and those at the front of the audience had the bejesus scared right out of them. Not only does she look like she'd own you in an argument in moments like this, but you wouldn't fancy your chances in a scrap either. There was deft comic delivery in "Whoops" with impoverished, post-pub Pete, who's blown his wages, 'staggering home/ Jabbering/ looking like some streetsmart arrogant gnome' and moments of acute pathos, like the summation of Bradley's materially-rich existence in "Pictures on a Screen" in the heart-rending, "Life's just a thing that he does."
You're always going to get a standing ovation in a venue with no seating, but the volume and sustained adulation at the end was a proper outpouring and an immediate vindication of Tempest's closing invocation to 'wake up and love more'. It brought her back on stage, in tears, for an untitled encore, voicing a generation 'with our heads down and our hackles up,' giving us a tantalising glimpse of new work to come. To see her humbled and moved by the audience response showed just how much performance and creativity costs her. She looked rinsed through and wrung out. In an era where talk is cheap, Tempest sculpts a priceless phrase, hands it over and says 'Please, take it with you.' We leave substantially enriched.
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