Kate Tempest Brings a Revolutionary Performance to Treefort
Were you there? Why weren’t you? Maybe you were at a nearby venue, catching another artist. Maybe you had a bad case of the Sunday sulk, recovering from the previous four days. Maybe you didn’t go to Treefort at all this year (boooo!). Maybe you were at your loft a few blocks away wondering why you could hear a faint South London accent in the wind. Maybe you were somewhere, anywhere, wondering to yourself, “am I missing out on anything?”. Well whoever you are, if you weren’t at mainstage at 5:30pm the Sunday of Treefort 2017, you missed out. Kate Tempest was not only the highlight of my Treefort, her performance was possibly the best show I’ve ever experienced. I don’t think I’m alone in this. Anyone there could notice the crowd was stuck in a collective jaw drop. The awe was measurable as cheers swelled and intimate tears fell. Something special was happening.
Whether you were there, or elsewhere, this isn’t just an article reviewing her performance. This is a chronicle of one of the greatest performances, in my opinion, to ever touch Boise, Idaho and beyond. This is an exaltation of art that history we will know as Kate Tempest. This is as an attempt to have you fall in love with an artist that is on the forefront of a cultural revolution.
Before I do that, let’s zoom out for a minute and give some context to the artist that I’m getting all worked up about. Kate Tempest is from London. She’s been rapping since the age of 16. She later added poetry and spoken word to her arsenal, winning the Ted Hughes award for one of her books of poetry. She dabbled as a playwright and even wrote a novel based on the characters of her debut LP, Everybody Down; the album for which she was nominated to win a Mercury Prize. On quick glance she’s made a gargantuan name for herself as a master of many forms.
You can understand why she was in my list of favorite artists of 2016, or why I listed her off as my DO NOT MISS pick of my 2017 Treefort list. Even co-founder of Treefort Music Festival, Eric Gilbert, confirmed her as his top choice. The foundation was already set for a stunning performance. It was inevitable. Yet, somehow she defied even those highest expectations. Even a week later as I write this, I am still recovering from the shock of purpose and passion that exploded on that stage.
On that Sunday, I almost missed the beginning of her performance. I ran into the mainstage just as Kate Tempest began with the spoken word introduction of Picture a Vacuum. In it she recites, “It’s been a long day, I know, but look. Watch as it flickers and it roars into fullness and fills the whole frame blazing a fire you can’t bear the majesty of. Here is our Sun.” There was something magically synchronous happening here, because in those moments, the sun finally creeped its way from behind the clouds for the first time that day. The overcast day had seemingly been summoned away by her presence on stage.
Now let me tell you about her sorcery. She was joined by three talented musicians: a drummer playing on programmed pads and two others playing unique keyboard set ups. Her music is fantastically produced by Dan Carey, but the live musicians injected a powerfully raw groove unheard in the recordings. By the start of her second song I could tell that she was performing her latest album, Let Them Eat Chaos, from beginning to end. She takes no breaks between songs. No introductions or thank you’s to the crowd. Tempest and her band are performing a singular set, divided into thirteen songs only by the shifts in narrative. This is how her mastery of storytelling and theatre come into play.
She begins with a universal perspective, guiding us from a galactic scale, zooming into Earth, the streets of London. She further focuses in on seven strangers that live on the same street. Weaving between third and first person, one thing stays constant, it is 4:18am. Here are their lives as they encounter this sacred morning hour. She illuminates the unique struggles of each person: Gemma’s low-self esteem, Esther’s anger with society, Alisha’s grief of a loved one’s passing, love-struck Pete’s feeling stuck in unsuccess, Bradley’s desperation despite his prosperity, Zoe’s alienation from her home, Pius’s broken heart. Although we only get a few minutes in a lyrical snapshot of each person, Tempest’s descriptions are so intimate that we feel a deep complexity of character. This is the mark of a talented novelist. With the specificity of each fictional creation, Tempest magnetizes the crowd to relate and invest themselves.
Kate Tempest tackles massive societal issues such as economic disparity, gentrification, racism, political corruption, climate change, drug addiction and broken legal systems. In her most aggressive song, Europe is Lost, she recites, “’Cause it’s big business, baby, and its smile is hideous. Top down violence, a structural viciousness. Your kids are dosed up on medical sedatives. But don’t worry bout that, man, worry ’bout terrorists”. Her hard-hitting lyrics are channeled through the voices of each character and it can be hard to distinguish where the fictions ends and her didactic intentions begin. Maybe this is what makes it more digestible, more relatable, more potent. Her performance is a cultural criticism interweaved within fantastic narrative.
In the penultimate track, Breaks, Kate Tempest employs the mightiest metaphor of a storm. A swelling of thunderous clouds has accumulated over the city. It beckons the characters outside. The storm breaks and rain falls, and as it does, Tempest describes a surreal moment of connection that binds them together as,“they see each other”. In their unified awe, the unique problems of the individual melt under the downpour. Here, the performance turns its razor sharp motive outwards onto the audience. It is evident that we are the strangers of her stories, in our varied lives and struggles. Tempest is the storm that commands our attention and binds us. Her rhythmic downpour of electric intentions has brought us all together.
We were all captured in these mystical final moments. Kate Tempest enters into her final track, shedding away all narrative construct. Tunnel Vision is the reason she’s brought us here, this is her own voice loud and clear, “You see, the tragedy and pain of a person that you’ve never met / is present in your nightmares, in your pull towards despair / and the sickness of the culture, and the sickness in our hearts / is a sickness that’s inflicted by this distance that we share”. The bulk of this performance has been a heavy criticism of the issues that plague our modern life, personally, socially, and beyond. She wants us to acknowledge these things in our lives and passionately pleads us to action in her last lines, “I’m screaming at my loved ones to wake up and love more / I’m pleading with my loved ones to wake up and love more.”
In my opinion, this performance was art in its truest form: a masterful weave of multiple forms that strongly encourage a social awareness and need for action. Kate Tempest was not afraid to push us to discomfort with her carefully calculated criticism. Her sweet words and heartfelt voice guided us through heavy lines that, in most other settings, would have activated our self-preserving defenses. She pulled us through the muddiness of ourselves, and did not make us feel ashamed. Through her tales of struggle and connection, she compelled us instead to compassion. Because of this, Kate Tempest is the standard bearer for change that our world needs. Her spectacular performance made this year’s Treefort Music Festival an event forever engraved in my heart.
Take this opportunity and listen to Kate Tempest’s, Let Them Eat Chaos. Hear the passion.