I saw Kate Tempest in concert last night. She’s one of my favorite musicians of the last few years. After seeing this gig though, I was so annoyed I actually needed a little time to calm down before I could write about it.
I’ll start by saying again that I’m a massive fan of Tempest work, and even after this gig, I think she’s probably the best wordsmith in British music today, and both her first two albums would make it in my top 10 albums of the decade.
In short though, on multiple levels this was the most depressingly negative gig I’ve ever seen (and I listen to some fucking dark music – more about this later).
First of all, she decided to start by playing about 6-7 songs from the first two albums. I was really excited to hear this stuff – not a dud amongst them, IMHO. However, Tempest decided not to play a single one of them start to finish, but to put them together into a medley. This was a really irritating way to kick off the set, because it meant just when you were getting into a track, it changed into something else. It also really disrespects the songs as complete entities, bastardizing them into pieces pulled apart, without their contexts, which I found really disappointing. It gave the impression that Tempest herself had lost interest in them, and couldn’t be bothered playing them all the way through as complete pieces of work.
I’m sure it must get tiresome for any artist to play songs over and over, and I’d have probably found it less annoying to have if she’d just decided to not play them at all, but please don’t tear up my memory of songs I really liked into 30 second “tasters”.
She then moved into the new album, and played it start to finish. I say played, but this is fairly generous as there were probably only three actually bits of music on the album. Perhaps 80% of it was spoken word with some very washy ambient synths under it. I’ll freely admit (as I have many times before) that Kate Tempest is a master at spoken word, but still – it’s poetry and NOT song. I saw her do a reading from her novel a couple of years ago, and enjoyed it. The difference was that I wasn’t mis-sold this as a gig when it was instead a rumination.
Far more serious than any of these other complaints though was the biggest – and most fucking infuriating – problem with this performance. This “music” was so relentlessly, unforgivingly, unbearably depressing.
Layered in fantastically densely-packed stories and reflections, she led us through the reasons we should give up the fight for anything better.
From selfies to the 9-5, the environment to our political leaders, everything is ruinous.
She’s not wrong, but it’s deeply disappointing to have her preach this stuff without any lyrical dynamics, and assuming we’re not already frustrated and trying to cope.
Now hear me out – I know that, for example, I love Mount Eerie, and many other artists that engage deeply with pain, loss and suffering. In that example though, the pain is personal and not an unrelenting dismantling of the whole of western society. Tempest takes on pretty much the whole make-up of the modern world and shines a piercing light on just how fucked things are. It’s precisely her skill that means this critique is so convincing, and it really left me feeling like things were just futile.
Of course, Tempest came back with the final track about the beauty in all our faces, seemingly trying to offset the massive downer that this gig was. It wasn’t nearly enough. She seems hopeless, and I’m very sorry for her sadness, but I can’t spend my time to be beaten down by this narrative of despair.
One more note on all this. I was pretty much alone in my opinion, from what I could tell. The packed house was very appreciative of the performance, which was bizarre to me. People would cheer and clap as Tempest told them about why they should give up. People would film and photograph her as she was outlining the facile and vacuous existence of exactly this kind of activity. It felt like the audience were gluttons for punishment, but I was not one of them.
Word by Nick Parker.