Kate Bush: Before the Dawn - Review

This was a moment few had ever expected to happen and as soon as I heard Kate Bush was going to return to the stage after 35 years, my first response was why now? So if you'd be kind enough, stay with me while I ponder a moment...

It seems that after sensibly developing a working method that enabled this most private of artists to produce some of the most beautiful music of the last four decades, we must thank her son Bertie for persuading Kate Bush to perform live on stage again. Here is a woman capable of provoking such a strong emotional response through her music. An artist driven by an incredible sensitivity, intelligence and curiosity to produce work that is both deeply moving (no pun intended) and at the same time intellectually deep. And you just know that here is an artist who will not compromise on quality or artistic vision. As a consequence, so many people care passionately about what she does.

However, another Kate ‘watcher’ I know thinks she's toured for financial reasons. Partly perhaps, I mean who knows for sure? But it seems to me more likely that, despite being very aware of both her own status as an icon and the creative necessity to keep her distance from the intrusions of a curious world; Kate Bush, through her 'K' Fellowship, has developed something special to communicate directly to her audience. Something personal and direct. Therefore it came as no surprise to me when she requested that the lucky few who obtained tickets leave their recording devices at home or at least have the common curtesy to switch them off during the show. Of course, whatever the reasons for Kate Bush's unexpected return to live performance, it has surely been the most eagerly anticipated musical event of the year.

Sir Elton John said in the recent BBC documentary about her that she set the template for performing on stage during her 1979 'Tour of Life'. With this mixture of her songs combined with theatre, mime and dance, Kate Bush proved then that she could realise something deeper and more meaningful on stage, taking the audience beyond the narrow conventions of 'the rock gig'. It also set a huge standard by which she would be judged in any future live performance. A factor nobody knows better than Kate Bush herself.

*****

After all the expectation and by the time I actually got to the venue, I was still pinching myself that I'm about to see Kate Bush 'in the flesh'. Like many I've since spoken to, it was so important to me that this performance was a success -never before have I so felt the need for an artist to do well!

In the air, one could sense the heady atmosphere of expectation. A local bar was cashing in and served 'Kate Bush Cocktails' (my partner had a 'Wuthering Heights' which tasted of grand marnier in case you're wondering). Inside the venue, my expectation was heightened by the feeling that this was an exclusive and probably one off 'event' that I'd waited years to see. Of course, for almost everybody, it will be the first time we have seen Kate perform live.

My expectation peaked as the performers took the stage. Kate and Bertie were among them. You can imagine the roar as we saw and heard Kate Bush greet her audience and then burst into song. And now, there she is in front of us, singing with confidence and élan.

The first set was assured and exactly designed to grab the audience. The songs were a mixture of material from 'Hounds of Love' onwards. Beautifully performed, the band ran through the tight set flawlessly. And in the centre of course is Kate, smiling, moving gracefully to the music and never missing a note.

During 'Hounds of Love' I actually cried (wasn't to be the last time) as I realised that I needn't have worried about the risk of failure to deliver. 'Running Up That Hill', 'Lily', 'Joanni' ..... This was going to be quite a show. And they hadn't even scratched the surface of what was in store....

I'd heard that Kate Bush was going to stage 'The Ninth Wave' through the media buzz. I'd also wondered about the potential for failing to create a credible (possible!?) interpretation of its complexities on stage. Even a stage as large as the Eventim Apollo in Hammersmith couldn't contain such a thing surely? How on earth was she going to do it? Side two of 'Hounds of Love' is such an extraordinary, unique piece of work and intensely personal to each who hears it. Although a narrative piece, songs and fragments are seamlessly woven together; flowing forwards, sideways and backwards. Speeds vary and voices echo, songs merge, coalesce, reprise and fragment. Throughout the piece, our sense of place and time is heightened, expanded or reduced....

Played out is the entire 'Ninth Wave' with an introduction that takes us beyond the confines of the stage to an imagined observer. Without giving too much away, we are given a performance which incorporates live music, theatre and multi media. This story; on one level about a little girl slowly drowning, is also about the nature of spiritual, temporal and emotional dislocation and loss. The achingly beautiful 'I Dream of Sheep' is consoling and plaintive. But we know where we're heading.... 'Under Ice' with all it’s mystery and drama. The 'reality' is inverted. "The screen is reality.... The stage......the dream" (Kate). She's signing on the screen, immersed in a tank suspended in water, but 'nightmare' aspects of the pieces are played out theatrically on stage. We see all the events imagined in 'The Ninth Wave' as a third person.

The songs are realised for us using the most remarkable means. Figures cloaked as fishes are all perfectly choreographed, an evil interrogator (reminding me of the dark judge from 'Eyes Wide Shut') accuses the protagonist of 'Waking The Witch' inside her. During the finale of this song, the helicopter is recreated on stage with fog and lights flying around the front rows: 'Get out of the water!' ...

(In the excellent accompanying programme, Kate goes into detail about her experience of being suspended in a water tank so as to get the scenes of the 'drowning woman' projected during this section. Believe me, she suffers for her art!)

... After all that, a new set is placed before us. A 'stage within a stage' in which a young man is talking about sausages with his dad! On they go about Dad's lost file and the sausages, when behind them... Well, it's too special to reveal. But Bertie's grown up.

All of this really has to be seen to be believed. 'Watching You Without Me', 'Hello Earth' and 'Jig Of Life'. Each song is played through with the most amazing and unexpected visual accompaniments. Again, the sets and choreography are just astounding. The sea and it's mystery...

Kate Bush wrote that each of the narrative pieces ('The Ninth Wave' and 'A Sky of Honey') are 'sat in opposition to each other'. One being about a tragedy and the other 'a journey of light and birdsong on a Summer's Day'. An answer to those who wanted 'The Greatest Hits'.

By this point, this first part of the show has taken your breath away. Kate says to us 'have a rest and we'll be back soon'. She was right. The emotions of her audience have been strained and we need a moment to reflect.

*****

A huge door opens, through which a puppeteer dressed like a Cleric walks a small, rather timid wooden figure of the kind artists use to model.
'The day is full of birds'... Skilfully operated, the little figure wanders round the stage and around Kate.... 'Sounds like they're saying words'....
She sits at the piano and plays one of her most beautiful songs, 'Prelude/Prologue'. Although Kate isn't specific on this point; to these eyes, the figure is Bertie as he was. The little one seeing nature for the first time.

'A Sky of Honey' is as enchanting today as when I first heard it. Under a huge backdrop of birds, choreographed in slow motion, we see a cast of characters arrive on stage to play out each song. Bertie is cast as The Artist, as Kate sings about 'watching the painter painting'. Next to her is the little wooden Bertie. The whole effect is moving and sublime in equal measure. Only Bertie as the artist breaks the spell when he tells his former self to 'Piss off!'. However, It 'breaks the spell' in just the right way to make the audience laugh. The spartan sets are a perfect contrast to that of 'The Ninth Wave'. And these work wonderfully to enhance the music.

As Bertie puts the final touches on his canvas of clouds, Kate and the band work their way through 'An Architects Dream', 'The Painters' Link' and into 'Sunset'; each moving tableau just adding to the music. As a huge red sun slowly sets behind them all, Kate is framed centre stage again. But as the moon rises and turns, it's Bertie who is the main focus. Cajoling, conducting, willing the moon; he strikes a dashing pose and handles such a large and expectant audience with dramatic confidence. For his solo number, he really proves himself. It's in many people's mind no doubt that at his age his mother had her first hit.

As the last part of 'A Sky of Honey' plays out, the drama reaches a crescendo; both musically and visually. Kate's exit being incredible. I won't spoil it by revealing anymore. Just to say that feathers and light are involved.

The final part of the show sees Kate back onstage with her band. She also plays 'Among Angels' solo on her piano. A wonderful counterpoint to the extraordinary performances of the evening. Kate Bush encores with 'Cloudbusting' and predictably, the crowd go wild.

*****

A few words about those who made the show. Kate needed a director who wouldn't take over her vision and found that in Adrian Noble. Her 'Creative Consultant' was of course Albert 'Bertie' McIntosh, without whom none of this would have happened. The lighting by Mark Henderson and stage sets by Dick Bird were excellent, enhancing but never overshadowing the 'live band'. One of whom was David Rhodes. A guitarist I've admired since he toured with Japan in the early eighties. The only musician from her 'Tour of Life' to work on 'Before The Dawn' was Kevin McAlea, but a long time collaborator was on stage in the form of John Giblin. The excellent percussion- a key feature of much of Kate's music- was by Mino Cinelu and Omar Hakim. Also, the costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel were vivid, elegant and heightened the atmosphere with mystery. 'Before The Dawn' is of course a group effort and each person involved is to be commended for creating the whole effect. In fact, it's hard to find anything to gripe about at all. And of course, one has to mention Robert Allsopp's beautiful puppetry, masks and other designs.

In conclusion, all the component parts fitted together seamlessly.

Three criticisms. And it's the fault of the venue and certain members of the audience. We were sat right at the back of the top tier. Not only did the staff insist on walking round during the whole performance obscuring our views, but some bright spark decided not to turn off the lights. This meant that it was harder to distinguish details on the stage or get the full benefit of the effects the performers were trying to convey. Very poor. Also, certain audience members kept getting up to buy drinks and then use the toilet. I would have thought that after a wait of 35 years they could have tied a knot in it for a few hours. Or, is their need to spend money or buy drink that great? Or, perhaps they suffer from a short attention span?

*****

To say this was a special event is of course a glorious understatement. I think I can speak for most of the audience in saying that we all left with something special. Something beyond money, something beyond mere 'entertainment'; something unique which we will never forget. Ever.

(C) Gideon Hall 2014

www.katebush.com

Author's review: 
5