35 years was well worth the wait
“Where’ve you been?” Kate Bush asks nonchalantly, beaming widely as the second standing ovation of the night greets the close of her first song, ‘Lily’. Thirty-five long years in the waiting, and at first, incredible as it was to even believe it was happening, it seemed as if Kate Bush’s legendary reluctance to tour had made for a somewhat more restrained show than the all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting extravaganza that was 1979’s The Tour of Life. Bush found that experience so exhausting that she more than once had to be carried offstage.
So it would have been fine, surely, if – as it still seems by five songs in, after ‘Lily”s intro of the Gayatri mantra urges us to “see the true spiritual sun hidden behind the disc of golden light” – things seem a little sedate. Not that a tear-inducingly perfect ‘Hounds Of Love’, the tightrope-walking grace of ‘Top Of The City’, and a propulsive, ‘Running Up That Hill’ , aren’t more than enough on their own. It might be sort of a standard rock show, but it’s Kate Bush live. And if standard rock show is what Kate wants these days, then god knows, this woman who’s fought since her earliest days for complete creative control, the power to follow her imagination absolutely, will most certainly have it.
And then: ‘King Of The Mountain’s creepy, ghost-reggae groove begins. It swells into a storm of crashing cymbals, her five-strong chorus (including her son Bertie McIntosh) echoing the howling winds. Fierce and wilder it rises, and then suddenly, without warning, percussionist Mino Cinelu, with his long gray braids, is out front whirring a bullroarer through flashes of stage lightning. From here on in, shit gets unreal.
Confetti cannons of yellow paper fire, and as it falls, we can see there’s writing on it. Grabbed from the floor, they reveal the same lines from the ‘The Coming Of Arthur’ section of Tennyson’s Idylls Of The King that adorns the rear sleeve of ‘The Hounds Of Love’ and gives ‘The Ninth Wave’ that album’s second half, its title. The songs of that suite, which make up a narrative of one woman’s night stranded out at sea, become a stunning theatrical production. It deconceptualises one of rock’s most famous concept albums, bringing it to life. Within a fantastic stage set framed by a structure somewhere between a whale’s ribcage, the timbers of a ship’s hull and a rippling wave, fish-headed figures ripple and billow a silk sea, as Kate sings ‘And Dream Of Sheep’ on the video screen behind (recorded live in Pinewood Studios’ water tank), a red point on her lifejacket flashing. “Little light shining… my face is all lit up…”.
The little light, and the bigger lights of the sun and moon, together with the black bird wings that appear fleetingly as Kate is shoved down under the ice during ‘Waking The Witch’ become the motifs that subtly connect ‘The Ninth Wave’ to the second half of the set and her other great song suite, ‘Aerial’’s ‘A Sky Of Honey’. As that opening mantra (and the title of the show) suggests, it’s all about light and life, out of the darkness. And as always with Kate Bush, there’s the strong thread of a very family affair. The ‘helicopter’ light on a huge jib, belching dry ice as it searches for the Celtic Deep’s missing passenger, swinging blinding spots over the crowd, is voiced by her brother Paddy Bush, while her oldest brother John Carder Bush takes up his familiar role of narration in ‘The Jig Of Life’’s call to arms. Bertie also plays the son of the sea-stranded protagonist in a touching, sitcom-silly domestic scene set in half-submerged livingroom for ‘Watching You Without Me’. It’s Bertie, too, Bush thanks early in the show for the fact that these gigs have happened at all (“he gave me the courage to push the button”) and it’s his young voice that opens ‘A Sky Of Honey’, an impression of a summer’s day in light and colour: “the day is full of birds/Sounds like they’re saying words”.
In the complicated, heavily symbolic masque that follows, Bertie takes on the role of the painter (played on the album, unfortunately, by Rolf Harris). The stage is adorned by gold and blue clouded sky, lit from behind so it glows like a Turner made of real clouds. Bush looks relaxed and confident, rolling through the song suite’s beautiful, blissful progression, frequently embracing a little wooden artists’ model that bobs around, animated by mysterious purpose. Bertie gets a new track all to himself: ‘Tawny Moon’ is a lunar love song in which the madnesses of love and art combine. “‘I’ve got to get it right/I’ve got blisters on my hands… My love, my love, Luna, of bedlam”.
At the show’s climax, Bush metamorphoses, sprouting great black wings as she joins the dawn chorus with her bird-masked band and actors. “All of the birds are laughing, come on let’s join in…I feel I gotta get up on the roof”. It’s phenomenal, as baffling and beautiful as the Ninth Wave was clear. A two-song encore of ‘50 Words For Snow’’s delicate ‘Among Angel’s and – oh god yes – ‘Cloudbusting’ closes on a perfect note. “Your sun’s coming out” indeed. And you didn’t really think she’d play ‘Wuthering Heights’, did you? She’s toured that one once already! Where’ve you been?