Hanging in a pub window opposite tonight’s venue, Catford’s 800-capacity Broadway Theatre, a sign reads: ‘WE LOVE YOU KATE’. It’s a reminder, if one was needed, that this is a homecoming of sorts for south-east London’s Kate Tempest, if a less intimate and less local one than her last big local show (filmed by the BBC up the road at Brockley’s Rivoli Ballroom).
Tonight’s gig involves simpler staging (a giant red circle propped up on the stage like a silk trampoline); the live band of her previous album showcase is replaced with a mostly superfluous synth assistant and a whole load of backing tracks – a reminder, if one was needed, that the atmospheres beautifully crafted on her new album (including some ominous cello arrangements) are becoming more difficult to replicate in a live setting.
Tempest shuffles on stage and proclaims “I’m happy to be here where I’m from,” basking in the predictably warm welcome. The set begins with a mini-greatest hits of favourites from her last two albums, including Europe Is Lost, Circles, Ketamine For Breakfast and The Beigeness. It’s all good and fine and well-received, but really just a warm-up for the main event – the opportunity to experience a full run-through of new release The Book of Traps and Lessons in all its song-cycling newness.
A more diffuse and less conceptually focused effort than her last opus Let Them Eat Chaos, this album sees Tempest leaving the characters of her previous work on the sidelines, and exploring some more personal revelations of sex, love and friendship alongside the usual storied state-of-the nation political and cultural observations. Bleakness and warm comfort are not easy bedfellows, and it’s a tribute to the crafting and exquisite sequencing of the album’s music that they sit alongside each other with such alacrity.
So, finally the giant circle lights up and we are bathed in the red moon of Thirsty, a bar-room tale with eerie sonics that houses the strikingly odd line: “My eyes were like shovels in the soil of the sky, digging in to the night to find solace.” After a brooding Three Sided Coin, an effective treatise on consumerism and empire that retreads familiar old ground, her meditation on love and freedom I Trap You rustles into life. Couples can be seen leaning into each other, as if in blissful recognition of the imperfection of their love. The mood swings again, and throws us suddenly back to despair in the album’s bleak spoken-word mid-point All Humans Too Late. “We’re dead… we should be down on our knees in the dirt,” she intones, but even here at her bleakest, there is space for wry humour. “‘I see how blind I’ve been’,” said all prophets, too late” elicits chuckles – the evening is at its most intimate and affecting when we can hear the audience’s response to her words.
Then, the reedy gospel of Hold Your Own, the evening’s big, motivational moment, is a reminder that we are in the presence of a preacher. If the preaching is in danger of becoming worryingly preachy at points, the new subject matter provides some welcome balance: the moon turns to a rippling burnished gold in Firesmoke – a husky late night come-on that of all the new tracks best makes the case for how Tempest might break out into new musical and lyrical ground. Out of a muddy backing for Holy Elixir, the music finally wrestles itself free, Tempest stands back and her synth-playing accompanist unexpectedly throws up a giant wall of detuned synth. It’s a definitely a big moment, but a stark reminder of the evening’s main weak spot.
With the music too often relegated to a sonic backdrop, excessive focus has been thrown on Tempest herself. Despite plenty of undeniable charm, she is no grandstanding MC and doesn’t quite have a personality big enough to fill a hall of this size, even if her closing People’s Faces is the ultimate audience unifier. As her reputation grows, more sizeable venues like this seem a possibility; meanwhile, as the records develop in musical subtlety and variety, the reliance on tape seems ever more likely. It’s a conundrum with no easy solution, and it will be intriguing to see where she goes from here.