Live Report: Kate Bush’s Before The Dawn

The queen of the mountain takes Hammersmith…

As if it needs to be stated, if you’re yet to see this show, and don’t want the surprises ruined, it’s best to click away now

It begins, to some surprise, as a relatively straightforward rock show, albeit one with a near deity as a front woman. Barefoot, mane-haired, clad in a black-fringed kaftan, Kate Bush immediately illuminates the Eventim Apollo stage with a smile and a charmingly coy dance – a world away from the mannered mime of her previous live incarnation.

Bush’s voice, tobacco rich and lower in timbre, is magisterial. A strangely reticent but rapturously received ‘Hounds Of Love’ is good, but it’s when she unleashes some real lung power and emotional fire during ‘Top Of The City’ that the excitement really begins, followed by a note-perfect but subtly rearranged ‘Running Up That Hill’. This is the starter, a zingy if predictable preamble to the major theatricality to come.

It’s no secret by now that her Before The Dawn show is split into two distinct acts, encompassing work from the second halves of 1985’s ‘Hounds Of Love’ and 2005’s ‘Aerial’ respectively. Detractors looking for beleaguered, pitch-shifted versions of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and the 1970s hits are missing the point. This in artist with an extensive and contemporary catalogue of work, which she draws on most fittingly. This is truly a woman’s work, the universe of a 56-year-old mother, not a sylph-like, intoxicated dancing girl.

Her music has always been progressive, but far removed from the male egocentric, ‘King Arthur On Ice’, cock-fighting way of her ’70s peers. Of any musician of that fancifully indulgent era, perhaps only comparisons with someone such as Peter Hammill from Van Der Graaf Generator bear credence, and in her more whimsical moments, the pastoral psychedelic English eccentricity of Syd Barrett.

Forget bloated double concept albums: she has historically reduced her ideas, her unique, intense and often startling narrative voices to the confines of single songs. Haranguing poisoners, celebrating gay neighbours, plotting proto-Kill Bill revenge, incest, nuclear fallout, aboriginal diaspora, and more than one recounting of dubious sexual practices.

Often cited as her masterwork, ‘The Ninth Wave’ (side two of ‘Hounds Of Love’) has always had the tone of an opera, a suite of songs to be played in its entirety; the story of a woman, alone in the water after an unnamed tragedy at sea and her metaphysical fight for survival. Here, staged with a visually explicit story arc and additional characterisation, it takes on a truly epic quality. Never has the narrative appeared clearer, even though we’ve been listening to this record for decades. Previously unnoticed nuances are astonishing. It’s classic dark night of the soul territory and documents her life flashing, or rather dancing before her, in excruciating slow motion.

The first song of the sequence, ‘And Dream Of Sheep’, introduces us to her floating alone in the water and the stark but beautiful beginnings of her life struggle: the “little light” of the lyric, her lifejacket sending out its steady pulse. In a beguiling start to the sequence, the large oval back screen projects an image of her, supine in the dark water, while she sings live off stage. The lip-synching is so perfect though you’d swear she’s floating in a tank out the back.

But the most remarkable thing of all is the longing, resignation, fatigue and fight, the visceral emotion contained within her voice. You can feel the deepness and denseness of the bone-chilling water threatening to engulf her; her breaths between lines are laboured, her teeth literally chattering.

‘Under Ice’ is dramatic, racked with a tension that segues into the sinister ‘Waking The Witch’, in which she struggles to repent for her sins and her past. Then the stage set changes to that of a small living room, her husband and son arguing over the remote control and burnt sausages for tea, unaware of her plight, that she is missing at sea. She appears as a ghost, stalking the tilted, dramatic set, her face full with horror, regret and sadness.

In between all this there is the storm itself, ticker tape explosions of tissues with lines from Tennyson’s The Ninth Wave printed on them (a fragile keepsake), a mechanical helicopter replete with search lights. And, of course, there are the fish people: sinister, rope wearing, skeletal beings, a combination of childish nightmare and something from John Carpenter’s film The Fog.

Another remarkable part of the staging are the singer/actors, who are so deft, so finely timed, that in part they sound exactly like her own multi-tracked voice. Things it seemed impossible to replicate on the stage are finally brought triumphantly to fruition. Bush is clearly a perfectionist, as her last live show from 35 years ago will attest. The difference now is that you feel like technology has caught up with her. All that laborious studio work on Moogs and Fairlight pianos can be recreated on stage. The imagery, the sets and lighting can finally realise her vision in a practical way.

Her Celtic heritage is referenced in ‘Jig Of Life’ with its use of traditional Irish instruments. It conjures a messy but melodic maelstrom of crashing sound and feelings before an outstanding reading of ‘Hello Earth’, the pivotal, peerless song that holds it all together.

At the end she’s carried off in a death procession, down the central aisle, through the audience, only to reappear moments later, walking through the crowd, messianic, eyes glittering like coals, her army greatcoat flapping behind her. As on the album, the set ends with the jubilant ‘Morning Fog’, during which she gives thanks for her safety, her resurrection and all she’s taken for granted. It sounds utterly melodramatic, but it’s humbling and touching and staggeringly moving. Metaphorically and tangibly she is returned to us; as mother, sister, confidant, friend. And we’re so happy have her back.

Then it’s the intermission and we’re children being roused from a dream, like when you wake up draped over your father’s shoulder and discover that you’re somewhere different than the place where you fell asleep, disorientated and wrong footed. It feels alien to be outside, but kind to a woman who has bared her soul and stretched he lungs for an hour and a half in spectacular fashion after a break of 35 years.

The second act is constructed from the latter part of ‘Aerial’ her eighth studio album. ‘A Sky Of Honey’ is a song cycle invoking the natural world, the dawn, the sun, the flight of birds and ostensibly a painter attempting to capture these impressionistic forces. Incorporating puppetry, shadow theatre, projections and an audaciously beautiful stage set, which includes a forest of birch trees and a snowfall of white feathers, it’s genuinely magical. Where the first ‘act’ was a melancholy spectrum of blues and greys, its nocturnal bruised hues are shiver inducing: this is the golden red of a new day and it feels warm.

Changed into a Persian, eastern-influenced cloak feathered at the shoulders, a silver glint on her forehead, her restless hands are now bejewelled. She is literally beaming, initially tentative but now entirely at ease, all the love sent her way returned manifold into the crowd in an awesome refraction: dazzling the eyes, the heart and the mind. She has become the personification of Gaia, a circle of life summed up in one woman. She mimics birdsong, juddering and stuttering, trilling and pecking, her head bobbing from side to side. It’s enchanting and vocally mesmerising.

In the startling and surprisingly dark end segment, the band dons vicious Venetian carnival-style bird masks and Bush is presented with a wing, an arm of feathers, which she coquettishly winds around herself like a bowerbird dancing, constructing her nest. At the last she's sucked into the background, for a second into the darkness and then springs forth on wires, in flight, fully winged, raven black, a clever visual reference also to the back cover of her 1980 album ‘Never For Ever’. It's a breath-taking finale.

And that’s one of the biggest joys of Kate Bush. She is rightly feted as a goddess, a brilliantly talented, era-defining, uncompromising artist. But there’s something entirely un-elitist about her. She’s as material and maternal as someone you know, that you’d say good morning to on the way to work. She feels tangible, domestic and intimate yet simultaneously from a parallel world. She inspires such love despite, or perhaps because of her idiosyncrasies; she’s an everywoman. Her bat-shit crazy flights of fancy, her affectation, her cheesy mime-infused facial expressions, her humour and warmth is utterly human. And human is comforting.

As an encore she comes back onstage alone, her lion heart bared to the world, sits down at the piano and sings a rice paper rendition of ‘Among Angels’ the final track from ‘50 Words For Snow’, her most recent album. “There’s someone who’s loved you forever, but you don’t know it,” she intones. But she can’t not know it – the love here tonight is palpable.

And then comes a literally ecstatic ‘Cloudbusting’ at which point people rush down towards the stage. It’s almost involuntary: people dance, they wave their arms, hug themselves, smile at strangers. A young slip of girl, with crimped hair, a vision of the past made real, presents her with a bouquet with a clearly homemade card attached. They’re from all of us. An imperfect, but flawlessly heartfelt thank you.

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Words: Anna Wilson

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