St James’ Church, Dingle
The small stage of St James’ Church has been many things: the site of Amy Winehouse stripping everything back until only the obsidian heart of her talent remained, a storm-bashed lighthouse during Covid when For Those I Love honoured a fallen friend, an exposing force that raises the already elevated – The National, Low, Little Simz.
But never has it so explicitly formed a precipice. On Sunday night the artist Kae Tempest, whose poetry can also take the shape of albums, novel-writing and a visceral mode of connection, explains what is about to happen. They announce that they have had an extraordinary 48 hours at Other Voices and are offering something up in return: a combination of uninterrupted spoken song and poetry from their life’s archive, new and old, that will take its shape in the moment, accompanied by the composer and violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire, whom they met this weekend. They dedicate it to Sinéad O’Connor and Shane MacGowan, tell the audience they’ll see them on the other side, and then step off the cliff edge.
It’s a decade since Tempest was presented with the Ted Hughes Award for their long-form poem Brand New Ancients. In the meantime they have awoken in Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio to write Hold Your Own and been nominated for the Mercury Prize twice. Here, the tenderness of People’s Faces, from The Book of Traps and Lessons, their 2019 album, and the manifesto-like More Pressure, from the 2022 record The Line Is a Curve, take on new, highly charged meanings.
At moments Tempest balances verbal fragments from different works, tangling and untangling them, as though fastening wood to rope to form a bridge into the unknown. Mac Con Iomaire’s improvised accompaniment tosses feathers to soften the path.
It’s one thing to engineer a performance that’s polished, brilliant, delightful, with no intention to stumble, as we often witness on this stage. It’s another entirely to surrender to the moment, to fall, and to create landing points within the bodies of the audience members themselves. They end with the words of A Rainy Night in Soho, by The Pogues: “Now the song is nearly over, we may never find out what it means, still there’s a light I hold before me, you’re the measure of my dreams.”
In the aftermath, the audience walk from the church speechless and stunned. Many describe feeling shaken. Others cry. Some characterise it as the most remarkable performance they have witnessed.
At a time when the personal brand jostles for attention, this is a mode utterly devoid of artifice. At a moment of turmoil, the tempest on stage appears to calm the waters and flash the warning signs. In a room so loaded with the ghosts of performances and people, and a landscape and place so full of ancient and contemporary culture, Tempest has seared something on the air that feels indelible.