Poet, rapper, playwright, novelist, Mercury nominee, winner of the prestigious Ted Hughes Award, inventor of a cure for the common cold (okay, so the last one was made up but frankly you wouldn’t put it past her)...for many Kate Tempest has seemingly sprung from nowhere over the past year or so. The reality’s radically different but no less impressive...
More on this later but first up Mahalia. At just 16 years old she seems incredibly confident and relaxed up there (she’s been performing for three years or so already) with an easy going and pure soulfulness that’s impossible to fake.
Playing half a dozen or so self penned tracks she addressed everything from the struggles of a single mum in the poem acapella mash up of Matalan to the evils of bullying in Silly Girl. There are plenty of great singer songwriters out there and it’s a fool’s game to try to predict who will and won’t make it but there’s just something that little bit extra special about this Mahalia that makes her well worth following. You’ll get your chance at her first ever Birmingham headline show at The Sunflower Lounge on December 21st.
It took a couple of tracks for Loyle Carner and Rebel Clef to really find their flow tonight but both opening number BFG and Cantona, touching tributes to the former’s dad who passed away earlier this year, revealed the kind of emotional vulnerability that a lot of rap sadly lacks these days.
Like Tempest I’m guessing Carner started out writing poetry and there were some fine alliterative rhymes in the mix, notably on Night Gown, but the duo left the best to last with Hendrix, an addictively catchy track that apparently can’t be released as it features a sample of the man himself. If Jimi were alive I reckon he’d have no beef with it but it’s too good to stay underground. Shed the sample...or get some other guitar god on the case...and get it out there.
With the room now packed full of a unusual mix of punters ranging from a couple of ladies of a certain age right at the front through to hipsters, bookworms and the odd head nodding hip hopper Tempest lingered momentarily off stage before joining band seemingly savouring the moment. Once she’s up there though there’s no stopping her. Most of us have trouble remembering our pin numbers but the sheer volume, speed and complexity of some of tonight’s tracks is staggering and she barely stumbles over a single syllable. Everybody Down, the album that’s finally bought her the attention she deserves, is a wildly ambitious piece of work set in modern day London and featuring 12 tracks linked by a series of characters. Rizzle Kicks this ain’t. Opening with the sparse Kraftwerk-ish beats of Marshall Law Tempest packs in more lyrical content than most artists manage in an entire album.
Brilliantly observed, witty, insightful, socially aware...the pictures she paints with words are splattered with sweat, coke (and we’re not talking the fizzy drink here) and jizz. It’s a wild ride and we’ve only just begun. Over the course of the evening Kate takes us through her characters’ trials and tribulations set against the backdrop of the fallout from the recession that’s condemning many of her generation to a grim slog for survival. Familiarity with the material helps as the beats can, at times, make catching every word a little tricky, especially given the pace that some of them run at but it’s perfectly possible to enjoy much of this stuff as just great pop music (in the very best sense of the word) with both The Beigeness and Circles (featuring a gloriously soulful solo from Kate’s backing vocalist) possessing some particularly hooky choruses. More challenging was the industrial pounding of Happy End that threatened at times to shake the fillings from yer teeth but it certainly created the right atmosphere for the track’s subject of Harry and Becky running away together to avoid her uncle actually removing Harry’s teeth with his boot. Nasty.
If anything the between track chat made an equally powerful impression though. It’s clear that Tempest has worked her (white towelling) socks off to get this far and she talked of the night’s she spent rapping at strangers on night buses and travelling for seven hours to get to a gig attended by just 12 people...none of whom were there to see her...before returning home to get changed for work. It’s a subject she returned to in a seemingly spontaneous performance of one of her older poems The Becoming with Tempest in the raw, stripped of the beats, addressing the young girl she was, the young woman in her twenties that she is now and the older Kate still to come urging herself to keep working, striving, growing.
She’s been doing just that for some 11 years now (I was lucky enough to see her a few years back with her band Sound Of Rum, dubbing her “a fly Janis Joplin”, a description that still seems apt) and the sheer joy and gratitude emanating from the stage now that people were finally listening to her was almost physical.
Like her spiritual granddaddy, (Sir) Billy Bragg, Tempest clearly intends to use her growing fame and influence to... for wont of a better phrase ‘make a difference’. “If you take just one thing from this evening it’s to go to battle with your greed and cultivate your empathy” she concludes after a particularly passionate plea for us all to try to be better people. Out of the mouths of most performers this would sound like Bono-speak but you get the distinct impression that she’d genuinely give away her last penny if someone else needed it more than her. This makes the last track of the night especially poignant. “I’ve had my heart broken recently” she reveals before launching into an emotional Hot Night Cold Spaceship, a single tear sliding down her face as the last beat fades away. Here’s hoping that the obvious love in the room after tonight’s performance might just go some way towards mending it eh?