Wise and moving lyrics might have lured out many of tonight’s crowd, but it is their writer’s presence as a performer that will bring them back again
Unlike theatre, live music has never really had a fourth wall to break down, but if it did then Kae Tempest would surely be among the first to start tearing chunks out of it. The introductory speech they give at tonight’s show is almost iconoclastic in its disregard for the conventions of performance. It includes an outline of the setlist – new album The Line Is A Curve performed in its entirely, followed by a selection from their previous albums; an assurance of a shared experience co-created by performer and audience; and a veiled apology for the length of the preamble: it’s a gig’s worth of inter-song patter compressed into a single monologue.
This is an unconventional way to open a gig but, riding the line between performance poet and rapper and delivering their lyrics in a manner that’s part sermon part confession, Tempest arguably has a greater amount of artistic licence to exercise than your average MC. Besides, their opening speech is mutually beneficial: it warmly opens the creative and performative process up to the audience while also allowing Tempest to size up their crowd.
Introductory matters out of the way, the glassy synth lead of Priority Boredom cuts through the air, and we’re off. The Line Is A Curve is Tempest’s most musically diverse album to date, mixing the beats of their earlier records with the gentler and more ambient sounds of their 2019 album The Book Of Traps And Lessons. The performance thus ebbs and flows through the pulsing I Saw Light, the jazztronica of These Are the Days and the more bombastic Move. Gaps between the tracks are minimal and the audience responds as if at a classical music concert, applauding not after each track but only during more decisive pauses.
The Line Is A Curve makes more use of guest vocalists than Tempest’s previous albums and their absence is dealt with elegantly in a variety of ways. I Saw Light simply comes to a halt before Fontaines DC frontman Grian Chatten’s verse kicks in on the recording. Hinako Omori, who provides accompaniment throughout on an array of synths, sings the Lianne La Havas hook on No Prizes, while an extended instrumental fills in for Kevin Abstract in More Pressure.
Tempest’s poem Hold Your Own acts as an interlude between The Line Is A Curve and the selection of early tracks: it featured in The Book Of Traps And Lessons but has a longer history as a piece of verse and here Tempest delivers it with the freedom offered by poetry rather than with the rhythmic limitations music imposes. The tracks that follow are grittier, including the likes of Europe is Lost and Marshall Law, but Tempest closes the show emotively with the final three tracks from The Book Of Traps And Lessons: Firesmoke, Holy Elixir and People’s Faces. There is no encore – Tempest doesn’t do encores – but before People’s Faces they stand almost out of sight at the back of the stage while the music of Holy Elixir swells and rises, then peters out.
Much has been written about Tempest’s writing, and no doubt it is their wise and moving lyrics that lured out many of tonight’s crowd. But it is their extraordinary presence as a performer that will bring them back again. Modest but powerful, during No Prizes they only have to retreat to the rear of the stage and then step back up to the mic stand to be met with euphoric applause. The line “So come a little closer” in People’s Faces actually elicits a palpable shuffling forwards on the part of the audience. A masterclass in charming a crowd.