Everything about tonight was extraordinary. First, for Kate Bush fans, it was a moment we never thought would happen. After 35 years away from the stage, we had accepted it was likely that our live experience of Bush would be consigned to the 1979 The Tour Of Life documentary and the music videos that followed. Second, well, we’re going to see Kate Bush, the ultimate one-of-a-kind.
It is, really, the most extraordinary live event of the century so far. Never has so important an artist shunned the limelight for so long, while gathering legions of fans, generation after generation. Tickets for the 22 dates at the Hammersmith Apollo sold out in less than 15 minutes and, once extra dates were announced, they totalled 100,00. At the moment seats are going on eBay for over £1,000. Fans have flown from all over the world to witness pop’s greatest auteur perform. Indeed, the lobby of the Hammersmith venue was a babel of languages and accents from Sydney to Brooklyn, Denmark to Japan.
There is something exceptional about the particular effect Kate Bush has on her fans. The mad scramble for tickets in March earlier this year was music at its most ferociously emotional. Waves of euphoria and disappointment depending on your internet connection were felt for days if not months afterwards. Why does she have this intense power? Like one of her influences, the Armenian spiritual teacher Gurdjieff, who apparently had some special control over magic chords that made people faint, Bush’s strength is mystic and difficult to put into words. Unfettered confidence; a punk approach to the music industry which means doing what the hell she wants at all times; the refusal to play the celebrity fame game so she can focus her energy on her family and her art instead; her poetry; and, of course, music so beautiful it is, as Johnny Rotten said, beyond belief, probably come into it.
It is often said that without Kate Bush there would be no – deep breath – FKA Twigs, Grimes, Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, Cocteau Twins, Bjork, Kate Nash, Joanna Newsome, St Vincent, Bat For Lashes, Florence & The Machine. I like to think another female artist would’ve been allowed to achieve the first self-written number single in the UK soon after Bush, but there is no doubt her esoteric boldness is stamped through so many artists – both male and female – like the name through a stick of rock.
Which finds us at the Hammersmith Apollo, knowing little about what to expect. What’ve we got to go on? Well, the RSC’s director Adrian Noble is involved, Bush apparently spent three days in a flotation tank and ‘The Ninth Wave’ might be played, the second side to ‘Hounds Of Love’. Apart from that, as you’d expect, details have been Houdini-defying.
Outside the venue, there is a sense of celebration and heightened anticipation. I’m experiencing the same fizzing anxiety I had when trying to buy a ticket to one of the shows. Lots of people I speak to say they’re feeling “nervous.” There are costumes, t-shirts of Bush from all eras and lots and lots of velvet. Like many of the fans congregating on this drizzly, grey August day, Kate Bush changed my life. It feels good to be part of a tribe; I’m wearing a maroon velvet dress like the one in ‘The Sensual World’ and have a makeshift Kate Bush symbol tattoo on my hand. Some, though, have gone to a huge amount of time and effort to show their appreciation. I speak to a few punters outside the Apollo.
Chad, Los Angeles: “It cost me thousands of dollars in total to get here from the US but it’s totally worth it because Kate is an artist who puts her work and her relationship with her fans above commerce, above making money. That’s why she takes a long time to make an album because she cares so much about the outcome and that means more to her fans than anything.”
Ben: “We were lucky because Cloud (pictured above) got a pre-sale code as she’s been a fan for a long time but while I was trying to get the tickets she was having a fit. I’ve never seen someone so possessed, literally holding on to the walls, crying to the Lord. Every time I clicked, she screamed. It was very intense. But we got them!”
Emerson, San Francisco: “I’m a perfumer so I actually see Kate as all these layers to build this ultimate perfume, so I’m here just to be in awe of her.”
Andrea, Brooklyn: “I said to my friends that if I die after tonight then everything should feel totally OK with it. Everything else is a bonus from here on out.”
Stuart: “She’s an artist that stayed true to her self. She’s never followed fashion, she’s followed her art. I saw her in 1979 which was fabulous.”
Inside the venue, there’s tension in the air around the merchandise stall which features pendants, a first aid kit (all becomes clear later on), fish masks and the usual t-shirts, mugs and posters. People queue up for over an hour worried that they’ll miss out.
The programme is snazzy as hell and written at length by Bush herself with all sorts of interesting detail. It smells like it has real oil paint on it.
The show can be split into four parts, starting with a traditional beginning, which almost acted like a trick false start. Bush, all in black with a fringed cape-cardigan, bare foot and hair long to her lower back, stood before an impressive seven-piece band featuring two extensive drums kits with various percussion: in the programme notes she says the two key people at the start of the project were the lightning designer and the drummer. She saw the drummer as the “heart” of the project.
The Gayatri prayer – an old Vedic mantra – opened ‘Lily’, a track from ‘The Red Shoes’. ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘Joanni’, ‘Top of the City’, ‘Never Be Mine’, ‘Running up that Hill’ and ‘King of the Mountain’ followed and thus ended the ‘hits’ section of the set. Her voice sounded exquisite and remained rich, powerful and controlled through the night.
She thanked Mark Henderson, the lightning designer, and her son Bertie McIntosh, who she said had been there for 18 months and ‘pushed the button’ for her to do the show. “It’s been an adventure and it’s only just beginning,” she beamed. Bertie provided vocals and acted in the part of the son and the painter later on. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
There is something about Bush’s vocal delivery that made me hear lyrics as if it were for the first time. They way she sang the “wind is whistling” during ‘King Of The Mountain’ imitated the wind whistling through the venue. Though I’ve heard the lyrics “snow and Rosebud” from the same song thousands of times before I’d never actually imagined the literal imagery. It was an enriching symptom of the show I hadn’t expected.
Just when we thought we were in for a greatest hits set – although it seemed unlikely that Bush would choose such a traditional template – everything turned completely upside down. Yes, the rumours were true. We were going to watch ‘The Ninth Wave’, the second suite to ‘Hounds Of Love’ (1985), a concept album about a “person who is alone in the water for the night.”
Confetti canons trumpeted the change of gear; yellow pieces of paper with a verse from Tennyson’s The Coming Of Arthur, the poem the ‘ninth wave’ phrase is from. Rumbling thunder and gathering crowds gave way to a film part with an astronomer reporting a phone call from a sinking ship.
Billowing silk sheets, towering spikes that gave the impression the stage was in the stomach of a whale, helicopter search lights, lasers and a drag-on living room were just a few of the surreal facets of stage design that told the story of a woman lost at sea, struggling to stay a live during her dark night of the soul, surrounded by Fish People – a reference to her record label – inept coastguards with tails and stunning music. A soliloquy about sausages sat alongside a moving scene of Bush’s character visiting her son and partner knowing that she might never see them again.
From the first few notes of ‘And Dream Of Sheep’, which saw Bush in the lifeboat ring you’ll recognise from the tour pictures, the audience sat stunned and with baited breath. This wasn’t music with theatre and a splice or two of film thrown in; somehow the team had balanced together the three elements to create something else and rewritten the rule book of live performance along the way. It was a reminder of how avant-garde she is.
The stage shifted so the band was far left and an enormous ceiling-high Moroccan-style door stood on the right out of which a puppeteer walked with jaw-droppingly impressive skills. The puppet would remain throughout the act embraced by Bush at times as if it might be a comfort to her to have it (him? Bertie?) there as a prop. It was impossible to gauge what could be next. And it was fittingly perfect: the whole second side of ‘Aerial’ (2005), ‘The Sky Of Honey’.
You could call this part the nature segment. The backdrop changed between stunning close-up footage of British birds such as geese, gulls, chaffinches, robins and blue tits flying with the motion of their wings seen in crystal-clear detail. Never has a pigeon looked so romantic. During ‘An Architect’s Dream’ a huge screen appeared with Bertie (16, pictured above) acting the part of the painter. The main background at times resembled the burnished painting by Russian artist Ivan Aivazovsky called The Ninth Wave.
It was during this point that Bush’s impeccable movement and skilled control, taught by Lindsay Kemp in the late 70s, shone through, though her dancing was – comparably to the tour 35 years ago – at a minimum. This kinetic effect was mesmeric, as was the visuals showing a vivid crimson sunset and hyper-realistic tawny moon spinning on its axis.
‘A Sky Of Honey’ is an elemental album filled with natural sounds, including Bush herself imitating bird song, and the visuals mirrored the music, with murmurations of starlings a particular highlight. The effect was pastoral, calming and warm although typically the fairy-tale had a dark undercurrent; at one point it looked as though the puppet was savaging a sea gull and a spatter of scarlet blood hit the screen. It had that feeling of the surreal moment between waking and dreaming. Towards the end Bush had a prosthetic winged arm in the Edward Scissorhands vein before being suspended in air and flown briefly in blackbird guise to enormous cheers. Again, the lyrics sounded completely different live. I’d never realised how beautiful and evocative the line “the stars are caught in our hair” from ‘Nocturn’ was.
“Thank you so much for such a wonderful, warm and positive response,” said Bush before closing the show. As she sat at the piano, some might have assumed she’d break into an older classic such as ‘The Man With A Child in His Eyes’ or ‘This Woman’s Work’. Oh no. ‘Among Angels’ from ’50 Words For Snow’ was followed by a euphoric version of ‘Cloudbusting’.
After she left the stage, the crowd cheered and applauded for a good 10 minutes but there was no re-entrance. There was a sense that the audience were stunned as we filed out of the Apollo; there was just so much to digest and process.
It is no ordinary artist that can tackle life, death, synchronicity, identity, spiritual transformation, empathy and the chaos of relationships with idiosyncratic ease in the space of a few hours. Some may have wanted to hear more of the older hits – music from her first four albums, including ‘Wuthering Heights’ was eschewed – but there was no denying the vitality, creativity and huge amount of work and character that’s gone into the Before The Dawn tour. Though perhaps it surprised people when watching it, the show was perfectly ‘Kate’. In an interview with Simon Reynolds in the 90s, she made this comment, which rings true today:
That’s what all art’s about – a sense of moving away from boundaries that you can’t – in real-life. Like a dancer is always trying to fly, really – to do something that’s just not possible. But you try to do as much as you can within those physical boundaries. All art is like that: a form of exploration, of making up stories. Writing, film, sculpture, music: it’s all make-believe, really
Let us know if you were there and what you thought in the comments below