Tems at Somerset House review: So much onstage charisma and musical talent

·2-min read
 (Takis Zontiros)
(Takis Zontiros)

Nigerian singer-songwriter Tems was performing against the odds at Somerset House. “It’s a miracle I’m here” she admitted. A nasty bout of reflux laryngitis meant she almost wasn’t the opener for the venue’s summer concert series, but she had made it.

Defiant in the face of any vocal concerns, Temilade Openiyi had no backing track or microphone programmed with comforting reverb. Instead it was just a four-piece band, two backing singers, and her voice, which has drawn admirers in A-list belters Adele and Rihanna, to name but two.

Its potential was unleashed with an opening rendition of Higher, from 2020’s For Broken Ears, her debut EP that covers intimate territory including love, longing, and struggles with mental health. Her rich vocals swirled with delicate, intricate melodies that swung between a rich bass and piercing head voice. A single arpeggiating guitar and light drumming showcased them well.

Any illusions that this would be a laid-back performance, however, were shattered when the band kicked into gear for her next track Avoid Things. She revved up the audience with plenty of booty swaying, dropping to the floor and throwing up gun fingers. Amid the emotional punches of the song – “Badman wanna play mind games with me” – she channelled the joy and abandon of the nightclub. She was cheered on and often imitated by the well-dressed, multicultural crowd.

 (Richard Thompson)
(Richard Thompson)

Tems is part of a tsunami of talent hailing from Nigeria hitting musical shores around the world. Thanks to her, and artists like Wizkid and Burna Boy, the sounds of the summer last year were underpinned by Afrobeats, a catch-all term for the fun, popular and highly danceable music coming out of West Africa. But what sets Tems apart is her seamless weaving of R&B, soul, reggae and jazz into her sound. She’s also not afraid to let loose during a guitar solo, head-banging on the floor when the guitarist came to the front of the stage to shred during Crazy Tings.

With so much onstage charisma and musical talent, it was then a real shame when her voice started to give way during the show’s second half. The problems began with a struggle to hit the high notes in Mr Rebel, and then progressed into laughter, shrugs and apologies to the audience as her clearly not yet recovered voice became increasingly tired. She left the stage before the backing singers had finished their extended outro for Free Mind.

Although this perhaps wasn’t the “miracle” that Tems had been waiting for, the audience was wholly forgiving. Declarations of love were shared between her and the crowd so often that it would have made any onlooker feel like a third wheel. They knew that while this wasn’t the night for Tems, she has absolutely buckets of potential.

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