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Kate Bush’s Before the Dawn

Kate Bush, 2014 [1]

Kate Bush, 2014

2,447 words

Outside London’s Eventim Apollo the sign reads: “The KT Fellowship Presents: Before the Dawn: Sold Out” There is no mention of the name Kate Bush, but it fools nobody because news of her return to live performance has been so high profile and has often spilled over into hysteria. The conceit of anonymity is only part of the story. Before she had released a record, Bush played a series of gigs at various London pubs as part of the KT Bush band. The KT Fellowship sounds like a nostalgic throwback to such carefree times before she had even thought of the Tour of Life. 

As everyone now knows it has been 35 years since Kate Bush’s one and only tour, and the expectations for Before the Dawn are set impossibly high. If she doesn’t completely reinvent the entire concept of pop music as live performance, and do so with a level of synesthetic artistry that would make Wagner jealous, then the whole experience could feel like a let-down. Of course, she delivers on all counts, and more. How could you ever have doubted her?

I had avoided reading any reviews of the concert before going, so I didn’t know what to expect musically. 2005’s Aerial brought a lighter, almost jazzy feel to some of its tracks, and 2011’s 50 Words for Snow pursued this element further, stripping down the instrumentation to piano, bass, guitar, and drums. 50 Words is a remarkable album, spacious and measured, and with a sonic feel similar to John Martyn’s Solid Air and Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. Many of the vocals on 50 Words approach spoken word, presumably due to the fact that her vocal range is beginning to become more limited. My hunch is that most of the concert will consist of quieter versions of her songs, retro-fitted to fit her present vocal state, supplemented with some impressive theatricality or special effects.

The evening begins promptly at 7:45 with an announcement that the show is about to begin and a reminder that photography is not allowed during the performance. As far as I can see, the rule is observed throughout the entire performance, and it only serves to heighten the sense that this is a somehow timeless event. The music for the opening song, “Lily” from The Red Shoes, begins and Kate walks on stage barefoot leading her backing singers. It’s immediately obvious that my guess regarding the musical tone for the evening was hopeless. The volume is extremely loud, and the song is performed as a gutsy piece of out-and-out rock. My assumptions fall to the floor, torn into tiny pieces.

Before the deafening applause dies down at the song’s end, the next one begins: “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” and the hairs on the back of my neck rise. The song “Hounds of Love” was recently declared Kate Bush’s best by Mojo magazine, a verdict with which I agree, so it’s utterly astonishing to be hearing it played live. Again, it’s a loud and brilliantly sung performance. The lighting effects at the back of the stage are impressive, and this is beginning to feel like a more conventional rock gig than I had expected.

Kate Bush, early 1980s, like a Rossetti brought to life [2]

Kate Bush, early 1980s, like a Rossetti brought to life

“Joanni” (from Aerial) and “Top of the City” (from The Red Shoes) follow and bring the pace down somewhat. Then, from the applause, emerges the haunting synth sound that signals the beginning of “Running up that Hill.” Like “Hounds of Love” it has been reimagined for a live performance. The signature drum beat has been replaced by two drummers who produce a more complex rhythm, instantly recognizable yet subtly different from the original. Kate’s voice throughout is superb and, if there is a cloud to all of these silver linings, it’s the sad thought of how long she has been away from the stage. She is a natural live performer.

Next is “King of the Mountain” (from Aerial) and, as the song approaches its (very noisy) conclusion, one begins to suspect that something is afoot. One of the drummers leaves his kit and stands still at the edge of the stage. Kate then moves into the midst of the musicians as the drummer takes the stage and starts swinging something around on a rope. As he does so, and as the music intensifies, a whirling, whooshing sound can be heard picking up volume. Suddenly a deafening thunder crack sounds, accompanied by blinding lights and a burst of confetti, and then the stage disappears in darkness. A film begins to play. An astronomer is phoning the coastguard, explaining that as he was watching the Perseid meteor shower he heard a garbled message come through on his short wave radio. A ship, The Celtic Deep, is sinking. So begins the stage version of “The Ninth Wave.”

“The Ninth Wave” is a song cycle that made up side two of The Hounds of Love and is here performed in its entirety. We see Kate on the screen floating in dark water wearing a life jacket: the image used in the concert’s pre-publicity. The first song of the cycle, “And Dream of Sheep,” is performed as part of the film. The woman who was on the stricken vessel is lost at sea and on the verge of losing consciousness. She has only a small torch attached to the life jacket (“Little light shining”) and as she awaits rescue she drifts away, longing to sleep. For the next track, “Under Ice,” Kate appears on the stage following some rescuers tracking something beneath the frozen surface. At the song’s climax she realizes that it is in fact she who is beneath the ice (“It’s me”) and that she is observing the scene as a disembodied spirit. One of the rescuers starts a chainsaw and cuts a hole in the ice and they attempt to pull her out.

Now unconscious, the cycle turns into a sort of psychomachia charting her interior experiences as she approaches death. In “Waking the Witch” she is caught in a frozen moment suspended in the water. She experiences it as a medieval witch trial where guilt would be established by ducking the woman in water to see whether she sinks or floats. Throughout, there are sinister looking figures wearing masks of fish skulls.

The next segment, “Watching You Without Me” takes place in a small living room which has been strangely geometrically distorted. The woman’s son (played by Kate’s son, Bertie) and husband are waiting for her to return home and they engage in a sit-com style conversation concerning the father’s lost portfolio and his burning the dinner. In the midst of such a dark story this could seem very out of place, but the point of it is to accentuate the mundane normality of their situation. The scene is being witnessed by the woman who has returned home as a ghost to see the domestic life that she is about to leave behind. When she tries to touch her son she seems to give off an electric charge that causes the lighting to flicker. It’s a brilliantly staged piece, and it reminds you just how much Kate Bush’s art is immersed in the supernatural.

In the superb “Jig of Life,” a vivacious dance of death, the woman meets her older self who implores her to cling on to life. She tells her of the children she will have and insists that she must live to save this future: “This moment in time/ It doesn’t belong to you/ It belongs to me/ And to your little boy and to your little girl/ And the one hand clapping/ Where on your palm is my little line/ When you’re written in mine/ As an old memory.” When the song was written Kate was a young woman but now she has become her older self, and there is an undeniable poignancy to this performance, as though she is now addressing the younger Kate Bush across the decades.

With “Hello Earth” the lost woman is on the verge of death. Her consciousness leaves the planet and rises towards the stars and she looks back at the shrinking earth with a childlike sense of wonder. On the stage she is pulled onto a huge buoy and finally rescued. The upbeat resolution, “The Morning Fog,” confirms that she is finally back on firm ground and she expresses a sense of redemption through having endured her near-death experience. The musicians all join her onstage as the light returns, and the life-affirming music emphasizes her new found appreciation for that which had previously been taken for granted:

I am falling
Like a stone
Like a storm
Being born again
Into the sweet morning fog.
D’you know what?
I love you better now.

I am falling
And I’d love to hold you now
I’ll kiss the ground
I’ll tell my mother
I’ll tell my father
I’ll tell my loved one
I’ll tell my brothers
How much I love them.

confetti [3]The theater’s lights come on for the interval. I look at my watch and realise that Kate has been on stage for almost an hour and a half. It absolutely flew by. In the interval I wander down to the more expensive seats close to the stage and pick up some of the “confetti” that had been shot from the stage earlier. Each piece is printed with the verse from Tennyson’s “The Coming of Arthur” that was quoted on the record sleeve with the original release of “The Ninth Wave”: “Wave after wave, each mightier than the last/ ’Til last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep/ And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged/ Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame.” According to the program notes the handwriting is a copy of Tennyson’s own. We are dealing here with an artist who has a very uncommon eye for detail.

When part 2 begins we see a huge wooden door on the stage. The door opens and an artist’s mannequin the size of a child walks through controlled by a puppeteer who follows him. Thus begins the performance of “A Sky of Honey,” the song cycle that makes up disc 2 of Aerial, in its entirety. “A Sky of Honey” is an extraordinarily expressionistic work that follows the progression of a single midsummer day refracted through bird song, painting, the changing hues of sunlight and moonlight, and the ways in which these elements intersect with each other.

The mannequin walks around the stage and interacts with Kate and the musicians as the songs are played. He has incredibly well articulated movements, and you soon forget that he is being controlled by a puppeteer. A huge screen at the back of the stage plays images of birds in flight. An enormous canvas descends from the ceiling filled with a colorful image of sunlit clouds. Kate’s son plays the role of the painter, continually working at the canvas which, it transpires, is a moving work of art (presumably a huge HD screen). As the songs progress the clouds slowly shift and the colors change, mirroring the movement of the songs themselves.

Because “A Sky of Honey” is a cycle about the slow transformations that take place through a single day it doesn’t have the same sort of dramatic intensity as “The Ninth Wave.” Perhaps surprisingly, this doesn’t create a sense of anti-climax. The stage is used very differently in this half of the performance, with the band set off to the left and a large space for the puppet to wander around. Bertie even gets to sing a new song, “Tawny Moon,” as a vast moon is projected onto the screen at the rear of the stage.

Kate_Bush_CBE [4]

“A Sky of Honey” is about transience and mystery. The painting cannot be fixed in time, its colors run when the rain begins; so, even art is finite. Man is subject to greater cycles of nature than we would like to admit. Bird song is emblematic of this sense of mystery: “Who knows who wrote that song of Summer/ That blackbirds sing at dusk/ This is a song of color/ Where sands sing in crimson, red and rust/ Then climb into bed and turn to dust” (“Sunset”). For the track “Aerial Tal” Kate mimics bird song, momentarily entering into a shamanic channeling of the spirit of the birds. Her eyes widen and she is for a few seconds the timeless artist/shaman communing with nature. No other artist would be willing to risk ridicule in this way. This is what sets her apart and allows her to reach a deeper form of artistic communication that has nothing really in common with other popular singers. She is an artist who happens to work in the medium of pop music.

Despite the fact that it is about the passing of time, “A Sky of Honey” is an amazingly life-affirming work. Rather than focusing on lost time and the approach of death, it chooses to use time’s progression to accentuate and heighten every moment, every detail. Each passing moment is not a cause for mourning but rather the discovery of a new perspective, the celebration of a world born anew. The rich colors used for the set are a huge contrast to the darkness of “The Ninth Wave” and the whole experience is satisfyingly complete. Whereas “The Ninth Wave” is about discovering a new appreciation for life through the trauma of a near death experience, “A Sky of Honey” is about the realization of a near transcendent beauty being always close at hand, only waiting to be realized by the openness of the truly receptive individual. Bird song is one key to unlocking this mystery.

For an encore she plays “Among Angels” from 50 Words for Snow and “Cloudbusting” from Hounds of Love. The show has lasted for about three hours, and clearly the real art lies in the performance of the two song cycles, both of which have been extended for their performance here. Having subsequently read quite a few reviews of the concert it is telling that I haven’t noticed anyone comparing the staging of these song cycles to music videos. This is understandable because both are carefully and patiently constructed pieces that build on the existing music to create something intensely poetic. In any case, the music video is already a dead art form. Essentially, Kate has moved beyond such visual forms (which she mastered a long time ago) and has created a new type of art. Before the Dawn is a stunning work of popular high-modernism that will see nothing to rival it for decades.