First, a confession: performance poetry, or spoken word, has never been my preferred choice of poetic engagement. I tend to shy away from the outright expressiveness of it, tend to feel as if I’m being yelled at rather than being quietly drawn in; all explanation NOW, with little lingering in the aftermath to be contemplated and worked through in the recesses of the creative consciousness.
I suppose Steve Coogan’s quip about jazz may hold some resonance here, (although I like jazz): ‘When you know the musicians are having a better time than the people listening to the music, then I don’t like that.”
So, it was with a little trepidation that I made my way to the Empire Music Hall, Belfast, on the 30th of November to see Kate Tempest perform her latest album, ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’.
Upon arrival, shortly after the doors opened at 7:30pm, the crowd was already gathering and the air of expectancy was palpable. I bought a drink and took my place just right of the stage, fairly close to where the action would take place. When the warm-up act had finished there was a short lull, a reshuffling of the stage set-up, and then the lights went down.
Tempest came out to rapturous applause, dressed down in chinos, t-shirt and different coloured trainers. A short speech was made imploring the audience to refrain from taking photos on mobile phones and to treat the gig as a shared space of human connection, a theme that would recur throughout the performance: railing against the smartphone technology that has us miss life happening. (A memorable motif that will recur is the idea of the emoji cheapening tragedy.)
Then – we were off.
‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ is a rap concept album, of sorts. The opening monologue was delivered by Tempest in a deliberate and connective tone, using her free left hand to communicate emphasis. The tone was set by the description of ‘our earth’ as a mere blip on the cosmic canvas, setting the scene for a journey through London, viewed through the eyes of seven individuals in a single moment, 4:18am, as a storm is brewing on the outskirts of the city.
We are taken up the stairs; banister plated in ‘nicotine gold’, to a girl who can’t sleep; to the kitchen of a care worker who slumps there after a long shift; to a young careless man staggering home, drunk; to a girl struggling with her lesbian lust, and so on, giving us seven portraits of seven people who all believe their lives are in crisis.
Tempest has cleverly captured the idea of self obsession, inner heartache and emotional pain and has set it against the backdrop of a larger global concern. The ‘storm’ that gathers head throughout the album is representative of this global concern, echoing the lack of control that we all feel, at times; but perhaps particularly with the emergence of Brexit and Trump.
Tempest feels humanity is beginning to rip at the seams. The brewing storm eventually bursts upon our seven as they undergo a simultaneous awakening. Tempest ends the performance by hoping her friends and relatives will ‘love more’. The message is clear.
The songs were linked well by poetic monologues that set the scene for each character’s situation, before launching into a highly competent rapping style that has echoes of Plan B’s cockney signature. However, Tempest is her own woman, her tone of voice in certain intonations almost Victorian in their nasally resonance.
She depicts a rapper’s persona, but this is tempered by occasional delicate movements, which serve to enhance the mood of a piece. Her delivery is statement-like when reciting her poetry, gesturing to communicate the emphasis of certain words. The music was very good, although the lyrics got lost a little, for me, once the rapping began.
As a spectacle, Kate Tempest puts on quite a show, vocally energetic, physically relaxed, even kicking her trainers off at one point, but always retaining a sense of bristling tension.
She engaged with the crowd brilliantly, (I think she may even have looked into my very soul at least twice), who were reciprocating in kind. Quite frankly, to use an urban expression, the place was jumping.
The message Tempest is transmitting in ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ is nothing new, but it nevertheless feels freshly relevant in these uncertain times. Perhaps it will go down as an album of its time, in that respect. As a performer Kate Tempest impressed me greatly. I’m by no means a performance poetry convert; but having witnessed in person what Tempest has to offer, I’m willing to tune my ear to the ‘storm’.