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Kae Tempest at Shepherd’s Bush Empire review: dazzling wordplay from a generational talent

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 19/05/2022 Will Richards
Kae Tempest © Matt Writtle Kae Tempest

The roar that greeted Kae Tempest as they walked unassumingly onto the stage at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Wednesday night was the kind usually reserved for the end of shows, not the start. It took a few minutes of rapture from the 2,000 in attendance before Tempest could get a word in, eventually taking the mic to discuss how they believed this show would be a particularly good one due to a certain piece of loved-up graffiti they stumbled upon on the streets of the capital earlier in the day, which they described as a “public display of humanity.”

Similar words could be used to describe Tempest’s gigs, which are intensely cathartic and communal experiences. Sometimes, like on the poignant poem The Point, Tempest would perform a capella, blurring the lines between spoken word, poetry and rap. At others, they would be backed by a cacophony of grimy synths and heavy bass and swagger around the stage like a bolshy rapper. Behind whatever musical guise, Tempest’s voice was instantly commanding.

“On previous tours I’d come out on stage and say ‘Hi, nice to meet you’,” Tempest told the crowd at the start of the show, “but it hasn’t been true. I’ve been in a lot of pain.” In a recent interview with the Evening Standard, Tempest, who came out as non-binary in 2020, spoke of “intense panic attacks” they had experienced on previous tours, and that their fantastic new album The Line Is A Curve was borne from “that experience of crisis.” It felt fitting, then, that the first half of the show was a front-to-back rendition of the new album.

Across the show, they spoke of depression, panic disorder, battling misogyny, reckoning with your past and present selves and trying to live in the moment, all with a distinctly hopeful outlook. It was closing track People’s Faces that then brought the show’s message together. On the piano ballad, Tempest spoke of Londoners and their “fragile wages and extortionate rents,” who travel around with their “heads down and hackles up,” ready to “buckle underneath the trouble.” At the song’s apex, Tempest realised that the joy they need to carry on is found in the faces of others. It was clear from the response that every single person in attendance was hanging on Tempest’s every word and took a little bit of the message home with them.

Suitably, another massive wave of applause followed, which Tempest finally managed to stop only to tell the audience that they don’t perform “manipulative” encores and didn’t want the last thing the audience felt before they made their exit was disappointment that the artist didn’t return for another number. Over the preceding 90 minutes, they’d made everyone here feel just about everything else.

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