Review: Kate Tempest at Sydney Festival

Kate Tempest at Sydney Festival by Jamie Williams-2 editor Bobby Townsend headed to the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent to catch an unforgettable show:

I first encountered Kate Tempest in the way that most people find their new favourite artists… by chance. I was asked to review a remix album of Temper Trap songs and at its very end came a South London voice that immediately resonated. “I care about genius. I don’t care about celebrity. You only build them up to burn their effigies, anyway,” she spoke over Drum Song. Her vocal was half-rapped, half-recited and felt honest and earnest. Instantly, I was a fan.

So it was with unabashed excitement that, on a rainy Thursday some years on, I finally got the chance to see her live, at Sydney Festival 2016. In the interim years, the poet and MC has won the Ted Hughes Award for her work, Brand New Ancients, while her album, Everybody Down, was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2014. 

A sold-out crowd braved the epic thunderstorms to stand in an aesthetically beautiful tent in Hyde Park and, on the face of it, got exactly what they would have expected. There was rapping over electric drums, loops and synths and there was beat poetry with no musical accompaniment, but this show amounted to way, way more than the sum of its parts.

What appeals about Kate Tempest is that, while extremely talented, she is also the cherub-faced, ordinary girl from down the road that you’ve known all your life. There is no ego to her, no persona, no showbiz attitude. The way she looks on stage… the way she speaks on stage… if you saw her in the street you would undoubtedly be faced with the same no-nonsense South Londoner. From the second she ambled onstage, there was never any doubt that Tempest was 100 per cent real. Every word was delivered with honesty and with so much yearning and passion that, at times, her voice trembled and her body shook as she delivered them. It was as though she was aching to spill these words, that she could do nothing to hold them back.

Whether she was spitting rhymes over dance beats or engaging the room in a poem, she was eloquent, articulate, observant and wise. From the very start, the audience was entirely enraptured by her storytelling and the universal truths she dropped. In narcissistic Sydney, where crowds are notoriously and annoyingly chatty, it is quite the achievement to bring a room of hundreds of people to absolute silence for 75 minutes.

She talked of love, life, modern society, big business, politics and the realisation of what is and isn’t important. At one point, a guy in the front row pulled out his phone. “Don’t film it mate, live it with me,” she told him with a smile. And she was right. We were part of something that couldn’t be captured on camera; the dichotomy of being connected to every other human in the room in a shared experience while also feeling as though Tempest was speaking to each of us individually.

Her unaccompanied denouement was a truly incredible moment. “Hold your own,” she repeated, as she delivered an impassioned poem about happiness and love. “Happiness The Brand is not happiness. You are smarter than they think you are. They take us all for idiots, that’s their problem. If we act like idiots, it’s our problem.”

I don’t recall the last time I saw a show that was quite so honest, life-affirming and empowering. At times, I agreed with her so vehemently that it was as though she had reached out from the stage, pulled my brain from my head, read my exact thoughts and emotions and written a poem about them.

As she finished to rapturous applause, I wanted to storm the government, throw my phone in the bin and give a stranger a cuddle, all at once. Yet, when the house lights illuminated the venue, all I could do was stand in stunned silence, tears welling in my eyes, overwhelmed at what I had just experienced. I was emotionally exhausted yet utterly energised all at once.

I implore you to see Kate Tempest live at the earliest possible opportunity. As she stares you down and spits another inalienable truth at you, the feeling of connection and engagement will be almost tangible and you will know that you are in the presence of a genius. A genius with fire in her belly and love in her heart.

bobby townsend


Review by Bobby Townsend