Sydney Festival: Kate Tempest

Scott Wallace
22nd Jan 2016

Performing for Sydney Festival, Kate Tempest put on a rap show unlike any other rap show. A live experience unlike any other live experience. Her music sits at the nexus of spoken word and rap – the blurry line that separates spitting from poetry. With her machine gun flow, Kate Tempest’s mode of performance is at once thought-provoking and a fierce kick to the guts.

At first, the gnarly, disjointed beats elicited little more than nodding heads among the crowd, but it was clear that every person in the room was hypnotised by the performer that was centre stage. Restless and radiating attitude, Kate Tempest was the physical embodiment of her lyrics. When performing “The Truth,” a highlight from her acclaimed album Everybody Down, all other sound dropped away and she brilliantly deployed a sermon in rhyme.

Kate Tempest is a writer and not a freestyler, so her performance did not differ largely from her recorded output, but one could sense her responding to and playing off the energy in the room. She commanded attention, at one point imploring an audience member not to record her performance, to “just be in the moment.” As she dropped couplets with the weight of bombs, she held for the inevitable applause.

Performing her song “Circles,” she displayed an enormous amount of brilliant, but unassuming technical skill. To see her wrap her mouth around rapid-fire syllables, internal rhymes and skipping rhythms is simply devastating. The beats pounded away, but it felt wrong to dance in case you were to miss a word or a phrase or inadvertently take your eyes off the show’s star.

The set closed with the powerful “Europe Is Lost,” which was released at the tail-end of last year. With no accompaniment, Kate Tempest delivered the winding, powerful, sometimes playful spoken word piece to a rapturous response from the audience. Every word rang clear and true, even while the piece followed winding paths of association and juxtaposition. It was easy to find one’s jaw hanging open involuntarily.

It’s remarkable that Kate Tempest was able to take music that is centred on a clear narrative and translate it to a live setting. Her live performance makes it clear that on record she holds back sometimes in the interest of the narrative, but on-stage she pulls no punches. With fiery technical skill and unbelievably magnetic stage presence, she put all of herself into the performance, and may have changed a few lives in the process.

Concert photos by Jamie Williams