It’s always with a heightened sense of anticipation that music lovers gather to see an artist with as much hype whirling around her as Kate Tempest is currently enjoying. At Great Scott on Monday night, playing to a sold-out room fresh off a well-received set at New York’s Governor’s Ball festival, the twenty-nine year old Brit held the room enthralled with a beguiling charm that spoke volumes to her bright future.
Fronting a three-piece ensemble, Tempest delivered the beats that have created such a buzz around her debut release, Everybody Down, with a confident maturity, firing off her observational and often cautionary tales of London life without falter. Even more impressively, she regularly brought the room down to a hush with keen spoken word pieces, often using them to delve back into the hip-hop she so clearly loves and at other times using them as a sounding board for messages of equality and tolerance.
Tempest (born Kate Esther Calvert) first received acclaim as a performance artist and poet – her work, Brand New Ancients, was performed with orchestral backing at London’s Battersea Arts Centre and garnered the Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry in 2012 – so her flair for the dramatic, even in as small a setting as Great Scott, was natural and without hesitation. At times her introspection brought to mind Ani DiFranco’s similarly self-analyzing musings while at others the gravitas and sheer force of will recalled Saul Williams.
The set began with the tone setting, “The Beigeness,” where the downtrodden theme of hopeless youth that permeates Everybody Down was given a wonderful change of gear through Tempest’s unapologetic South London accent and impressively rapid-fire delivery. Soon after, “The Truth,” delivered as a formidable spoken-word piece, continued the theme of class warfare; as familiar a theme as hip-hop has ever known but containing revealing new insights when coming from the voice of an English woman.
“Theme from Becky,” a paean to a sex-worker finding heroism in avoiding desperation, as well as the advances of the desperate drug-dealing Harry while out for the night with her pals, was a powerhouse and showed that Tempest possesses a rare dexterity for coloring the corners in dead-end lives. “The Heist,” a tale of a deal inevitably doomed to go wrong, was strong and striking, recalling Trainspotting-era Danny Boyle for the immediacy of her imagery.
The intermingled themes and characters (Harry, Becky and Pete) that comprise Everybody Down are vivid proof of Tempest’s gift for literary-minded storytelling, however bringing such a complicated parable to life in a live hip-hop setting is often easier said – or rapped – than done. Tempest delivered on her characters’ promise admirably.
Equally admirable was the wide-ranging audience, ranging from young hipsters to older seemingly Cambridge literary types perhaps drawn by Tempest’s poetic prowess. This genre-spanning artist managed to reach both groups and everyone in between. One thing is for sure, none of them are likely to see her in this intimate an environment again.