Kate Tempest in Brixton: politics suffused with hope and humility
Where better than Brixton for Kate Tempest to perform her latest album Let Them Eat Chaos? Where better than a community riven by the repercussions of gentrification; a community whose long-serving sole traders are little more than pawns in a planning application process? Where better for Tempest – pictured during a BBC performance in 2016 - to return to play her biggest headline gig to date than the Brixton Academy, a venue where, she told the crowd, she used to visit alone, to watch the artists that inspired her.
Having seen Tempest once before in a small venue, doing new material, I was thrilled to be able to watch her perform in full an album that had become a keystone in my springtime playlists. She began the set with an extract from Brand New Ancients, a piece which earned her the prestigious Ted Hughes award and reputation for being, to my mind, one of the finest contemporary long form poets. The narrative piece translated beautifully to a musical stage, with live strings and exquisitely atmospheric lighting. The crowd stood, hundreds deep, in silence and anticipation as we watched a metamorphosis on stage.
Tempest’s performances are not about presence, praise or stagecraft - they are pure purpose. Her faultless delivery is plain, direct and exact, made all the more powerful for the lack of pretence. Before her success as a performance poet she has talked of performing for friends and strangers, so one might expect a degree of competency. But it must be said, still, that she did not drop a single stitch in the rich tapestry of poetry and song that she weaved on stage.
Brand New Ancients bears some relation to Let Them Eat Chaos in that they both use ordinary subjects to access the extraordinary, and the influence of myth on Let Them Eat Chaos is discernible in a way that is far more meaningful than a scattering of learned allusions. The album takes a loose, episodic narrative form which, through a series of vignettes, examines the lives of ordinary people, on the same street, at the same time, each grappling with a human experience: grief, heartache, excess, isolation. These characters are united in rapture at the end of the album by something as universal as a storm. If the myths teach us anything they teach us that no act and no being exists in isolation; all is part of the whole.
The track ‘Tunnel Vision’ is explicit in its rejection of the narratives of oppression, difference and division that dominate our news, our politics and our slide into a fragmented society predicated on the “myth of the individual”. Let Them Eat Chaos may be the most political work that Tempest has released to date. She is scathing in her criticism of the “structural viciousness” that permeates a society whose leaders are increasingly amoral and whose media prescribes false fears to a “bored of it all generation”.
Her Brixton gig took place five days after the Manchester bombing which left many reeling from its senselessness and wondering why “kids want to die for religion”. The haunting lyrics of ‘Europe is Lost’ drew a visceral cheer from the crowd - not because it is a leftwing lamentation or a protest song, but because it’s a statement of affairs.
With this in mind, Let Them Eat Chaos is not an easy ride of an album. It confronts the listener in their own complicity and complacency. While it has its up-tempo tracks and some seductively dark synth, it is by no means a party album. So why would so many think it good gig fodder for a Saturday night? The truth is, while the political charge is palpable in this work, the hope and the humility that suffuses the album, and indeed Kate’s performances, is what draws people to her music and what moved people in the crowd to tears.
Tears on a Saturday night in Brixton may not be all that unusual, but these tears were joyful, hopeful and earnest. Evidence that, in a culture awash with talking heads but devoid of prophets, there are audiences listening and watching for sincerity and truth.
Sarah Jane Cullinane
Sarah Jane Cullinane is a London-based poet and freelance writer with interests in the visual arts, medical history and the natural world. Previous published works include reviews and sociocultural commentary while current projects include a photographic poetry diary which can be viewed on Instagram: @sjcullinane