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11th May 2022

Live Review: Kae Tempest at Manchester’s Albert Hall

Conrad Pope reviews Kae Tempest’s unforgettable show at the Albert Hall.
Live Review: Kae Tempest at Manchester’s Albert Hall
Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans.

Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Kae Tempest perform at the Albert Hall in Manchester for the opening night of their “The Line Is A Curve” tour, and it was spectacular.

As a longtime Kae Tempest fan, following them and their work since the days of Everybody Down, I was thrilled to hear at the start of the year that an album was on its way, all the more so when the first singles graced our ears proving that the calibre was to be as strong as ever. It then occurred to me that as an aspiring music journalist and with the help of the lovely Mancunion’s music section I could cover this release, and over the last couple of months have done just that, writing on its singles, its release, and now its performance. The whole process has been a treat, start to finish, but I’d be lying if I said the performance wasn’t the highlight.

Oozing with charisma, Tempest delivered an electrifying performance truly worthy of their namesake. Conducting the audience with ease through a spectrum of emotions, from tear-jerking renditions of classics to straight bar-spitting hip-hop-esque energies charging the room, Kae demonstrated a masterclass in live performance. The atmosphere? Ecstatic. 

Before diving into the details of Tempest’s set, and ultimately returning to shouting their praises from rooftops, there are first a few less positive points which deserve mentioning. Keen to focus on the positives as much as possible, I’ll address these quickly now so they can be done with. 

The first, and most significant issue was the choice of venue. Having never visited the Albert Hall before, the first thing I noticed upon arrival was the beautiful interior design, the wonderful stained glass windows, and the lovely high ceilings of the former Methodist hall. Then I noticed where we’d be seated.

For those unfamiliar with the Albert Hall, the stage is situated on the first floor with space for standing audience members. On the second floor there is a raised seating area overlooking the crowd below, formed in a horseshoe around the stage. The ‘seats’ are essentially curved benches formed by a flight of deep stairs, offering nothing in the way of back support. They were profoundly uncomfortable, so much so that throughout the show I could see audience members forsaking their seats to come downstairs and get away from the discomfort, including those who’d paid extra for seats in the VIP section. Whilst this may be but a minor frustration for those who can stand for a three hour performance, for those who can’t such a seating area hardly makes for a pleasant experience. This brings me onto a wider issue with the venue: accessibility, or rather the lack thereof. 

In my opinion, the Albert Hall is not an accessible venue. So far as I could tell there were no provisions for wheelchair users, lacking a lift and the only access to the venue being multiple flights of stairs. Furthermore, the restrooms are in the basement, three flights down from the seating area, so for those who are able to make it up but with difficulty, toilet trips are likely to be quite a challenge. So, beautiful as the Albert Hall is, I wouldn’t be quick to recommend it to gig promoters.

The other slight shortcoming of the evening was the opening performance by the tour’s support act, Shungudzo

Though evidently very talented, Shungudzo’s set was rather underwhelming. Somewhat unfairly to her, I think this was due to a few factors outside of her control. First and foremost, it seemed like the sound engineer only switched on at the end of her performance, as the vocals were far too quiet, so much so that even sat almost inline with the speakers we couldn’t hear her introduce herself and had assumed she was just soundchecking.

Eventually the vocals were turned up a bit and we could hear her, but this initial floundering seriously took away from the performance as a whole. Even then though the audience seemed hardly engaged, partly perhaps because the light let in by the stained glass windows left the room looking almost like a grey haze, but also I think because the demographic had been misjudged. The majority of the audience were an older crowd who more or less talked en masse throughout Shungudzo’s performance, not interested in the more pop-esque grooves that were being pumped out. The younger heads in the audience seemed to get it more, but outnumbered significantly these few bobbing heads were lost in a sea of otherwise seemingly disinterested middle-aged folk.

It was a shame to have the support fall a bit flat, but fortunately this didn’t take much away from what would shape up to be a phenomenal evening. So with these few caveats addressed, allow me to return to the realm of positivity to discuss what I can honestly call one of the finest live performances I’ve ever attended.

Having been hyped for this gig for months, and having spent the previous 48 hours travelling back on a nightmare 2-day train journey from Cornwall to Manchester to attend this gig, I was pretty disappointed to have spent two hours sat on uncomfortable benches watching a set I couldn’t even hear properly. By the time Kae was about to come out, I can confess my concerns that either through persisting technical difficulties or an uninterested audience, the concert was set up to be a disappointment all round. I could not have been more wrong. 

Kae’s performance can be summarised as having had two halves, first performing The Line Is A Curve before playing what they jokingly referred to as “the hits”. Before beginning though Tempest took some time to discuss the significance of the performance to them, not only for its being the first concert they had performed since the Coronavirus Pandemic, but also as a marker of a personal journey, remarking “it’s taken me thirty-six years and I’m here”. Then the music for ‘Priority Boredom’ kicked in and things really began to heat up. 

The performance of The Line Is A Curve was superb, demonstrating clearly Kae’s capability to command a room right from the very outset. It’s always interesting to see how an audience reacts to hearing new material live for the first time, and I’m glad to say it was received exceptionally. Every song seemed to land perfectly, creating the intended response at each turn, shifting from hard hitting flows of ‘Nothing to Prove’ into the intense introspections in ‘No Prizes’, the intense emotionality of ‘Salt Coasts’ and then back into pure rhythms and vibes for ‘Move and More Pressure’. ‘Grace’ closed out the first half beautifully, cementing its merit as the album’s finale, for whilst a departure from its energetic predecessors the sheer serenity it evokes brought the room together to reflect as one on love and the grace with which it touches our lives. 

After such a stellar performance of The Line Is A Curve, I’d expected Kae to perform a short selection of their older material before making their leave. Again, I was wrong, as Kae went on to perform another hour’s worth of classics from across the previous albums. 

Opening with a powerful a cappella delivery of ‘Brand New Ancients’, Tempest returned to their slam poetry roots, drawing the crowd in before blasting the beat of ‘Europe Is Lost’ over the speakers and proceeding to just shell it down the mic. The crowd went mental. As any hip-hop head knows the value of an enclosed venue cannot be understated, the ceilings encase energies, beats fall in on themselves and the crowd begins to move as a singular wave. Persevering this momentum, Kae went on to perform a melody of ‘Marshall Law’, ‘Ketamine For Breakfast’, ‘Theme From Becky’ and ‘Circles. As a huge fan of both Everybody Down and Let Them Eat Chaos this was possibly the most exciting way to deliver so much of the adored legacy records into a short time frame, a feeling seemingly felt throughout the auditorium as the response rose indefinitely. 

As the set wound down, two unforgettable performances from The Book Of Traps And Lessons brought not only the audience together, but the themes which had permeated the entire evening. The first of these, ‘Firesmoke, can only be described as gorgeous. As an aspiring writer and an unfathomably amateur poet, particular when writing for my partner, ‘Firesmoke’ is the epitome I strive for. I remember hearing it for the first time and being left speechless at its beauty. If love could ever be summarised in two minutes it would be here, and its performance live was all the more special, a whole room left enamoured with love itself. 

If ‘Firesmoke’ can be understood as Kae’s representation of love between two, the gig’s finale, ‘People’s Faces’, should be understood as showcasing the importance of love between all people. I can confess that every time I hear this song I well up, and no exception was made for being in the Albert Hall. Tying together the themes of unity, love and the idea that “all life is forwards”, ‘People’s Faces’ rounded out the night superbly, precipitating a standing ovation of teary-eyed fans embracing one another. 

Kae Tempest’s performance at the Albert Hall was truly spectacular and will hold a special place in my heart for years to come. I can’t wait to see it again later in the tour and I can’t recommend it enough for those thinking of seeing them play. My thanks to Warren Higgins, Chuff Media, The Mancunion, and of course Kae for an unforgettable evening.

For tickets, music, and more on Kae Tempest, visit their website here.

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