It’s almost a week since I attended Kate Bush’s extraordinary comeback show ‘Before the Dawn’ in London’s Hammersmith Apollo and I’m still thinking about it, a lot. I don't consider this a review of the event since I couldn't bear the idea of being likened to a critic, rather these are personal reflections intended to describe the event for those who weren't fortunate enough to be there.
Immediately after the gig I had a strange kind of feeling, a kind of detachment that didn’t make any sense because the show was absolutely spectacular. My mind was processing the detachment as me being disappointed at the show but in hindsight I realise, I wasn’t disappointed, I was awe-struck and almost speechless.
The problem with being a musician attending other people’s concerts is that you always notice the imperfections and dwell on them much more than the average person.
So, immediately after the show my mind was nit-picking, being a critic thinking about the bits that didn’t quite work; the fact that she didn’t use live strings, the fact that she didn’t end the show with Dave Gilmour ripping a solo through ‘Wuthering Heights’, the fact that Peter Gabriel didn’t turn up to duet with her, feeling slight disappointment about the great songs she didn’t fit into her 3 hour show, thinking about some of the technical sound issues that occasionally cropped up.
All these are the hallmarks of a musician’s response to a gig.
But after the show my mind was just in its infancy of processing what I’d just witnessed.
Now though,thinking back to what I was thinking DURING the show I realise it’s probably the greatest pop/rock performance I’ve ever witnessed. It was astounding, unpredictable, joyous and moving.
Act I - The Unexpected Opening
It all started so unexpectedly ‘normal’. At 7.45 any fears that she might chicken-out at the last minute were laid to rest when she danced her way on stage in a conga line with several dancers as her 12 piece band launched into ‘Lily’, a lesser known album track from The Red Shoes. No one saw that coming!
Those who were used to seeing all those early sexy images of Kate Bush might be shocked with how she’s changed, but reality check needed, she’s a 56 year old Mum who has avoided the cosmetically obsessed pressures of pop stardom for the last 20 years. So, rather than being a mess of plastic surgery and insane fitness regimes like some singers of a similar age, she just looked like a glamorous, slightly eccentric 56 year old Mum, which is exactly what she is!
But the concert was never about how she looked, it was about how she performed.
First test was THAT voice:
At the start it was kinda hard to tell from where I was sitting up towards the back of the circle, her voice was a bit low in the drum-dominated mix but eventually the sound engineer sorted it out and she could be heard in all her glory. On ‘Lily’ and ‘The Hounds of Love’ she sounded a little tentative but still sounded way better than most singers, but I wasn’t comparing her to other singers, I was comparing her to herself.
Happily the adulation being thrown at her from the enraptured audience in those opening, historic moments only seemed to give her more confidence and after she sang ‘Joanni’ from Aerial and ‘Top of the City’ from The Red Shoes her voice had blossomed into that sensual and soaring powerful instrument we hear on her records. She really nailed the impassioned vocal dynamics of ‘Top of the City’, turning it into so much more powerful a song than it is on record. That highlighted part of the real beauty of this concert, all of these songs, bar one, had never been performed live by Kate Bush and the live setting gave many of the songs new life outside of the records, as so often happens.
But there was something very strange about the performance of these first few songs. After all the speculation surrounding a spectacular live show, these opening songs were presented in a simple stripped down stage presentation, just Kate singing at the front of her band of seasoned pros. The only thing that was unusual was the fact that her 16 year old son Bertie was part of the backing vocal group, which made the backing vocals sound eerily like Kate harmonising with herself.
‘Running Up That Hill’ was greeted with an enormous roar and, like several songs during the show, a standing ovation, but still it was just the normal rock n’roll show staging and this wasn’t at all what we were expecting.
The standard rock show format continued through ‘King of the Mountain’ from Aerial and I was beginning to think the show might be a bit underwhelming, but then almost out of nowhere the song started building to an ominous climax, the stage started getting dark and hey presto, the magic began. The almost bland staging of the opening six songs turned out to be an ingenious theatrical ruse.
The standard rock show setting got subsumed into the background, the band disappeared whilst still playing and instead the focus came to centre-stage where one of the percussionists brought out a strange device which he swirled around his head to create a howling wind sound. Cue spectacular light show, confetti exploding from the stage and a complete change of scenery.
From that moment until the end of the show the audience was transfixed, always wondering what the hell might happen next!
Act II - The Ninth Wave
The change signalled the beginning of The Ninth Wave, the complex suite from The Hounds of Love. The speculation had been correct. It was performed in its entirety, but no one could have guessed at how exactly it would be performed.
It was turned into a music theatre production of the most bizarre and unpredictable kind, too complex for me to explain in detail but I'll try to sum it up.
The stage was set up as a deep sea scene like the belly of a whale, waves were generated on an undulating carpet; for And Dream of Sheep a projected film screen showed Kate singing live floating in water as if waiting to be rescued from the deep sea; during Under Ice there were axes and a chainsaw used to simulate the breaking of ice until Kate emerged dramatically from a trap door; for Watching You Without Me a living room set was wheeled on stage with her son and stage husband in it, they acted out a scene with a ghostly Kate Bush in the background; for the most avant-garde section Waking The Witch there were dancers with some very odd costumes including skeletal fish masks surrounding her and a dark priest-like character taunting poor Kate. Towards the end a large rescue pod took centre stage from which Kate yet again emerged. The most spectacular bit involved a massive moving light projector in the ceiling simulating a helicopter searching for Kate, who, in the basic premise of The Ninth Wave is lost at sea.
It all sounds bizarre but most of it worked a treat. As a visual, musical spectacle it was quite astounding and the music was, for the most part, performed to perfection. My only gripe was a pre-recorded fiddle track was used on The Jig of Life which went out of synch with the band. John Sheahan would've kept in time with them!
The penultimate song of the suite, Hello Earth began with what sounded like a live uilleann piper, though it was impossible to see who was playing pipes from where I was sitting since the band was clouded in darkness.
Perhaps my favourite bit in the concert came at the end of The Ninth Wave when, after being held into the air and taken through the audience by the fish-headed dancers, she re-emerged as normal Kate, the lights came up and the band all strolled towards the front of the stage for a joyous, acoustic rendition of the last song of the suite, ‘The Morning Fog’. That, dear readers, is the bit that caused me to shed a few tears. It was just a beautiful, joyous moment. The culmination of a momentous passage in popular music history, the first ever staging of an iconic almost 30 year old concept piece. The theatrical setting really, really enhanced The Ninth Wave, it was just made for the theatre and I appreciate the piece so much more now.
Then the curtain came down and, thank Kate, it was only an interval. She could have ended it there and I’d have been happy, but no, she had a whole lot more in store.
Act III - Aerial
In my previous blog post I’d mentioned how much her 2005 album Aerial meant to me, particularly the second disc suite A Sky of Honey. After she’d played so many songs to open the show I figured there’d be no way she’d include the whole suite, if any of it at all.
As the curtains rose for the second half a new elaborate stage set up was revealed that seemed to hint at A Sky of Honey, however the initial music seeping out of the speakers was the title track of 50 Words For Snow. Was she instead planning on doing an elaborate staging of that? Was the tall disguised man in black standing at the masssive door and holding a strange boy-sized puppet actually Stephen Fry getting ready to recite the 50 Words For Snow? Thankfully, it wasn’t!
It was another ruse, Kate keeping us guessing. About 1 minute into the backing track of 50 Words For Snow the music was overtaken by birdsong and the opening sounds of A Sky of Honey. Again the rumours were true and thus began a mostly sublime, hypnotic and sumptuous staging of the piece.
Kate’s voice was so warm and pitch-perfect during the gorgeous 'Prologue', it set it up so wonderfully. She was also seated at the piano for the first time in the concert, which added to the dreamscape.
Then the question as to what to do about the unfortunate presence of Rolf Harris on the original recording was answered, completely logically. When the character of The Painter came on stage, it wasn’t Harris, it was Kate’s son Bertie who not only sang but acted throughout the show. For the most part he held his own very well, in fact, it was hard to tell for sure if it was him or a professional West End actor/singer in the painter’s outfit. It’s only after the show I found out for sure it was him. As the suite went on he had little bits of dialogue and he sang ‘The Painter’s Link’ previously sung by Harris, but Kate’s singing of 'An Architect’s Dream' and 'A Sea of Honey' which bookended 'The Painter’s Link' were just sublime and hypnotic.
In this staged version the music was accompanied by stunning visuals evoking nature and birds and muted, tasteful dancing which Kate took part in.
The one bit that didn’t quite work for me, and I think quite a bit of the audience, was a new song specifically written for Bertie to sing called ‘Tawny Moon’. It’s not that Bertie’s a bad singer, he has a fine music theatre style voice, but the new song was just too long and indistinct to justify it interrupting the previously perfectly paced suite. But I can forgive Kate her indulgence on this one, particularly since without Bertie’s encouragement this live show would never have happened. The song did however kind of kill the total immersion and enjoyment I was experiencing whilst A Sky of Honey was developing so hypnotically. The main problem was the song just went on too long, if it was a few minutes shorter it would have been fine. It was almost unfair to place Bertie in such a setting where his voice and stage presence would inevitably be compared to his genius Mum. On the other hand it could be seen as the ultimate motherly gesture of kindness, bestowing on her son a once in a lifetime opportunity that others could only dream of. In time perhaps Bertie will blossom into a bit of a musical genius himself.
Normal, abnormal service was resumed when Kate re-emerged to sing the closing songs of A Sky of Honey ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Aerial’. The suite was driven to a rousing finish with guitarist David Rhodes spouting a very quirky bird mask and dancing with Kate in typical Peter Gabriel style. Then came the climax that got the audience off their feet, Kate was transformed into a blackbird and hoisted into the air by some clever technical feat.
The crowd erupted at the end of A Sky of Honey with the realisation that we were the first people to witness a kind of show that no audience had ever witnessed before. The band and Kate took their bows and left the stage, but there was no way the crowd would let them go without an encore.
Eventually the crowd got their wish and for the first time since the 1980’s Kate Bush strode out alone onto the stage and over to her piano to sing and play solo.
She chose Among Angels from 50 Word for Snow, which wouldn’t be anywhere near the top of the list of fan requests for encores. However it seemed perfect for the night that was in it. It was a truly moving moment to witness and grown men could be seen sobbing!
Then she re-introduced the band for what she said was ‘The Last Song’ and at this point the mind raced as to what it might be, there were so many great songs she’d not yet sung. I was glad of her choice of song though, it was that song that got me into her music in the first place ‘Cloudbusting’.
The performance was triumphant and sealed a truly wondrous show that quite frankly pissed all over any other comeback concert I’ve witnessed, hell I’ve never seen a show like it. As the drum driven climax of ‘Cloudbusting’ burst open through the theatre, that previously respectful, phone-free, seated audience went wild and for the first time ushers were called upon to send some over-enthusiastic people back from the front of the stage to their seats. A bit unnecessary perhaps but again it highlighted something else quite ground-breaking about the show, she had changed the notion of a modern pop/rock concert from being a boisterous affair filled with booze, cameras and tuneless crowd sing-alongs into it being more like an opera with the audience respectfully listening to every word, gazing in child-like wonder at the theatrical spectacle in front of them.
For music as good as Kate Bush’s it’s exactly the right kind of atmosphere to sample it in and there’s no doubting this show will be a game changer in the music world. She did it entirely on her own terms without giving in to nostalgia yet only the most casual Kate Bush fan could have been disappointed at her song selection. Sure it could've been nice to hear all the big early hits like 'Wuthering Heights' but perhaps she was wise not to attempt to recreate the vocal gymanstics of those songs.
The post-concert reaction has been almost unanimously positive in the media and amongst her fans. In one fell swoop, after a 35 year hiatus, Kate Bush has re-written the rule book of pop concerts just like she did with her Tour of Life in 1979. Today’s pop stars are still ripping off elements of The Tour of Life, no doubt they’ll start ripping off Before The Dawn long before the sun sets on Kate Bush’s career.
So, now I return to analysing my original post-concert mood, it was dumb-struck awe, pure and simple. There were moments in the show I could quibble about, moments of technical mistakes or momentum killing haminess that distracted me at the time but I was happy with every single song Kate sang, astonished by the stage production and moved to tears on more than one occasion.
So I guess it was a pretty good night out in London’s far West End!
It’s a show I’d go back to see again, if I could. One viewing simply isn’t enough to take it all in. But nothing will ever top that first night experience, that feeling of not knowing what was coming at any moment, that feeling of suspense, drama and joy.
35 years in the making, It was the greatest comeback in popular music history, plain and simple.