Kate Bush :: Before The Dawn :: Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, 17-9-14

Who knows who wrote that song of summer
That blackbirds sing at dusk
This is a song of colour
Where sands sing in crimson, red and rust
Then climb into bed and turn to dust

Here I sit. Staring at an unforgiving blank page. It’s so white, it’s so empty. In the past, when I’ve seen a consciousness-altering gig I’ve come here, to trusty old Word, and the text has just flowed. From where, I do not know. It all just tumbles out, and then I leave it alone. I go back later (1-3 hours typically), and rewrite perhaps half of it (and I’m doing that right now, and right now, get your head around that…). And it’s at that point where I’ve largely figured out what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to get the constituent parts to hang together. I’m trying to collate words that illustrate the pictures and sounds in my mind. My retinas have let my brain collect images, stored into my mind bank forever. My ears have let sound slip in and swirl around, resonances which can be recalled forever, like a jukebox inside my head. The next stage, the third draft, and I know this might make me sound crazy, is to read what I’ve written out loud once or even twice, at which point I then rewrite about 10%. Somehow, my own voice, and my own ‘acting’, as it were, of the writing manages to show up the bits that don’t work, that I’m not explaining well, that don’t read well. Because really, it’s my voice that people hear (whether they want to or not!) when they read something I’ve written. People I know, anyway. Strangers can’t hear me but I hope to convey a bit of myself in reviews like this. I will then read it once more aloud to my dad, over the phone, tweak it a little more and finally send it off to the ether. That is the process. Even this paragraph explaining how I write will get rewritten; how meta, how postmodern!

And yet, here I delay. I talked to a writer friend today about the show. A fan since childhood, she’d seen it the night before I did and wept throughout. I didn’t do that, perhaps because I haven’t had a lifelong attachment to Kate Bush, or maybe because my journey has one more chapter to be written as I’m seeing it again next week. I did feel a bit weepy during a couple of points (And Dream Of Sheep in particular) but not greatly. I was just in shock, really. How can I put this… it made me forget everything about myself I don’t like. I forgot my anxieties. I forgot about the ups and downs of work. I stopped thinking about the things that make my brain a tough place to live sometimes. I just let go of everything and was consumed by this theatrical and musical spectacular. I can’t say that I’ve ever experienced a concert like it, nor am I ever likely to again (next week aside!). So I talked to my friend about the show and told her the truth – that I didn’t know where to begin. She’s pretty much a genius, and said: start with the birds, start with the nature.

Kate Bush was once asked who her favourite singer was. She said: the blackbird, then the thrush. She is an ordinary, extraordinary human being. Her level of creative control over her career has not come easy; it is something she has insisted upon, and fought for, and been bullied over, and people have tried to take it away from her. In the concert programme, a beautifully printed annual-type book (with some pages that don’t quite open, though you can see inside them, just because), the following exchange describes a meeting with Adrian Noble, the former head of the RSC who co-directs the show:

He was charm personified and was really, really enthusiastic about being involved in the show. He loved the idea of working on something that could integrate contemporary music with theatre.

But would we get on? Still a little nervous of him taking over, we met and I gave him the full blown lecture: “I’ve had to fight all my career to be heard… people always think I’m talking out of my arse… I don’t want you to just walk in and take over.” He sat very politely while I ranted and gave me the look I know so well: “We’ve got a right one ‘ere”.

This is, I think, hugely illuminating. Of course, as the world knows, a man would never have to fight and battle and be sublimated into a passive role in his own music career. But behind that warm, genuine, gentle persona she is a formidable opponent. So here she is, as ever doing what she wants in her own time and offering us all a look inside her head with Before The Dawn. And what lives in there? Birdsong, it turns out. Nature. The calmness of a single day, from dawn to dusk, to moonlight, to dawn again. This is the story of the second half of the concert. We’ve all been pounded and hammered and, frankly, a bit disturbed by the bleak tale of the first half. Battered around the head by more emotions than you’d think possible. The second half is where she attempts to take you by the metaphorical hand into a comedown room, one of those soft chill-out spaces found (when we were all younger) in clubs and festivals. That room where you need to go to breathe, because everything has become too much, you crave human contact and just want a nice cuddle. The sounds are temperate, the surroundings are welcoming, there is nothing to be afraid of, and you get into a corner, in your own space, in your own head, and everything is alright again. That’s what the second half was like. Having Kate Bush be your mum and make everything ok. I didn’t think of this at all last night, the maternal wave that envelopes the second half, but I’m thinking of it now, which is making me think of my own mother. She was so many things, too numerous to even begin to talk about here, but the one thing she was, above everything, was kind. She never thought of herself before me. She was interested and engaged and passionate about everything I did. Though not really, in any way, a traditional Jewish mother type, in her own way she made me the centre of her universe. And that, again, was what the second half felt like: to be spoken to, and have the thoughts in another person’s head directed at you. It was so light and positive and charming and, I keep saying this, warm. She was our mum, and she held us. And above all, throughout the whole night, you got this sense that she is just a good person. She thanked everyone, multiple times; the band, the cast, the audience. It was sincere and genuine. You could feel it, in your heart.

She goes for that same kind of state of human existence in the universe connection that Björk does. That sense of: marvel at the solar system, nature, animals, birds, the earth, the sky, the sun, the moon, it is all here, for you, and in the pinprick millisecond you live on this rotating blue rock it is a miracle that you are alive. You’re only here once, so you take her hand and walk through a single day by her side. Most crucially, though, the second half is really about light. How it gives life and how it wakes birds up to let them sing their songs; and then it goes away at night and the birds go to sleep. Light is what controls nature. The soundtrack to this reverie is the second half of Aerial, my favourite album of hers. The way it was built, block-by-block, going from a lazy morning to the blasted freak out of the title track was an hour I would like to relive every day. A trilogy of its songs were worth the price of admission: the Balearic, flamenco tour de force of Sunset, the driving, spectacular Nocturn and then the sonic frenzy of Aerial itself. It felt like something just for me; many of the reviews have focused on The Ninth Wave. Is that because perhaps 75% of the audience simply don’t know Aerial that well? If this concert series accomplishes anything, it’s that everyone should realise now what a brilliant album it is.

So, as I thought it would be, it was all too much. But ‘too much’ is why we came, it’s what we knew would happen. The second half’s Sky Of Honey, as she calls it, is remarkable. As a musical, visual, auditory, theatrical experience, she has raised the bar beyond what anyone (yes, this includes Bowie) could reach, today, tomorrow, or ever again. She’s set a new level, a new benchmark for how music and visuals can be matched together in a live context. And that’s not bad at all considering that she herself had almost no live context three weeks ago. A solitary, exhausting 1979 tour, some TV appearances, a few one-off-one-song live performances, and that’s your lot. It started thus:

In March of 2013, I said to Bertie, “Shall we do some live shows?” He said, “Yes. Absolutely!” I really wanted to do something different from working on another album and felt a real desire to have contact with the audience that still liked my work.

First, praise that sweet boy, Bertie. His support seems to have made the whole thing possible. For all of her feminine credentials, incidentally, she most often surrounds herself with men as collaborators. From these live musicians to her studio bands to the creative team, the only women present are a couple of backing singers and the hair/make-up/wardrobe team. It’s interesting in itself that she relies so heavily on male energy yet creates music that is so very female; perhaps she brings the feminine side out of her musicians, as there is nothing macho about the intuitive band around her.

So where did this newfound desire to perform come from? She’d never had any need, at all, to have contact with her audience, in person, in the same room, not for decades. Will it spark a larger desire to travel and meet her audiences all over the world, or is this just some wonderful one-off that precious few (relatively, 3600 people x 22 nights) will witness on a night that will be remembered by each and every person who got a golden ticket? Right now, none of that matters, as I play the show over in my head, like a bootleg nobody else can see or hear. I know this review is a bit abstract, not taking the form I usually use, but I don’t feel very normal today. I couldn’t come down from the gig at all when I got in. I find it hard to sleep when I get home late anyway, and I just lay there, vibrating, turning over and over, for hours. I’m reading a book on insomnia and how to resolve it through cognitive behavioural therapy at the moment. Among a whole host of information, derived from decades of neurologically based sleep research, it stresses the importance of never napping, attaining consistency in bedtime routine and so on. It tells you that good sleepers don’t worry about sleeping. They just do it. Is it that simple? Can you improve your sleep by simply not thinking about it? Brain training, i.e. CBT, gives you that control, but it’s not easy. Regardless, that wasn’t possible last night; my mind was full of… puppets, water, lifejackets and buoys, feathers, drumming, painting, (terrifying) skeletal fish heads, bare feet, birdsong, and her voice, that voice. Untouched by years of touring, some of the time it simply rendered the songs as you’ve heard them before, and sometimes it just let go, and hit glorious, perfect soaring notes. Singers convey something no musician can, as that window is unique, and just hearing her voice was indescribably powerful and personal.

During the whole show, nobody looked at their phone, incidentally, and what a pleasure that was. But here’s the thing about the show, aside from all the majesty and creativity and musicianship and theatrics and performance. The thing is this: you’ve never heard this stuff live before because none of these songs have ever been played live before. Not ever! Well, ok, you can watch, if you wish, a couple of performances of
Hounds of Love (mimed) and Running Up That Hill but that’s two songs, out of the 26 performed, that have been played before. The unique part, and what sets her apart from anyone else, is that you have no relationship to these tracks outside of their album context. Nobody does. The only songs her fans have a relationship to are the songs played in 1979 – and she plays precisely zero songs from that tour, from her first four albums or, for that matter, from The Sensual World (imagine if she’d done This Woman’s Work… talk about too much!). And that, for a living artist, is unprecedented. I’ve got plenty of albums, hundreds, by people who I’ve never seen live but they’ve all passed on, pining for the fjords, as it goes. Apart from Joni and Tom Waits, that is – sure, they don’t play live now but, like Bowie, they certainly have and live footage is easy to find (of the three, Tom does the odd gig so I live in hope). But even in the cases of artists long gone, if I didn’t see them live, they did of course play concerts (again, an exception: Nick Drake, no live footage of any kind exists) and you can get hold of recordings, easily. With Kate Bush, this is all new territory. Your whole life, you’ve been listening to her music as a recorded document, exactly as she wanted you to hear it, and it is your only source. And now, as if by magic, decades after her career started, she’s standing RIGHT THERE in front of you, singing at you, singing these songs and giving them a new, brand new, brand shiny and new, context. You have never laid eyes on her in person and you may never again. As Caitlin Moran said in her review, it is unquantifiably too much.

I was happy with the way the show was going even before the theatrical part began. It was a perfectly normal, perfectly brilliant rock show. The first half dozen songs were simply, powerfully, emotionally rendered, a little walk around Aerial and Hounds of Love and The Red Shoes. Lily, from that album (gave me a little smile: it’s my gran’s name), opened the show, and was later joined by Top Of The City, from the same record; the delivery on that song knocked me back in my seat. I’ve rarely heard a live vocal sound better. An Aerial track, Joanni, was sandwiched between the opener and a good old-fashioned crowd pleaser, Hounds Of Love itself. I mean, this is not up for argument: that is one of the great pop songs of the last century. As is Running Up That Hill, of course it is, which followed shortly after. What a pleasure, hearing those two songs was. But in that opening six-song salvo, which works as a sort of warm-up for The Ninth Wave, which I’m going to get to shortly, finally, the track that fucking KILLED was Aerial’s King Of the Mountain. I just can’t… there’s just no way… you’ll have to wait to hear it. It built and built (like Aerial’s title track did later on) to this sturm und drang turmoil and the backline core of the band, led by drumming legend Omar Hakim (what a privilege to see this guy play), just completely owned it.

Interlude:: my bootleg has just finished downloading. How nice. This may help with the rest of the review ::

I put Hounds Of Love on as I had to hear it first. The bootleg – and it’s been about a hundred years since I cared enough to get a boot of anything – is of the first night. The crowd are insane, they have certifiably lost their minds. I knew what was coming, pretty much, but they didn’t know a thing. It’s the newness of everything that gets you. That was the moment, for me, last night, when I thought… oh! Running Up That Hill doesn’t sound like the recording! This may sound like a strange observation. But the admittedly brilliant live version I’ve heard before (with David Gilmour on guitar at the 1987 Secret Policeman’s Ball sounds very much like the record (Gilmour’s superb work aside). This version had an elasticity, as it was being played by these consummate musicians. I don’t say that to make them sound like faceless session musos, that is the last thing they were. The keyboard player Kevin McAlea, the sole player remaining from her 1979 tour, got to send out some of the most iconic sounds in her canon. The brilliant Mino Cinélu provided the perfect percussive foil behind the heart of the band, Omar Hakim, and his propulsive drumming. A couple of jazz fusion links were inevitable, given the level of musicianship here: Cinélu played with Miles in the 80s, Hakim was in Weather Report; while Jon Carin on keyboards (a Pink Floyd alumni), the liquid bass of John Giblin (a veteran of five Bush albums), and Friðrik Karlsson and David Rhodes on guitars and various other stringed instruments completed the line-up. The company, which she calls The KT Fellowship, are rounded out by a set of excellent backing singers (more of a Greek chorus, really) plus actors/puppeteers. It’s a production where your eyes dart back and forth, never running out of something to look at. Greg Walsh’s innovative sound design did it to me in the earholes. While Mark Henderson’s lighting designs have graced West End and Broadway stages and he designed the National Theatre’s fantastic 50 Years On Stage celebration last year.

As I said, just hearing the songs, performed so well, would have been enough. But as King Of The Mountain, and I can’t tell you enough how brilliant it sounded, came to its end, we delved headfirst into The Ninth Wave, the name given to Hounds Of Love’s B side, and it all got a bit darker. I was rapt, on the edge of my seat, following the rather chilling and ghostly story of a drowning woman facing death, thinking of her family as she struggles to cling on. This was a glimpse into Kate Bush’s mind; sometimes it’s light and life affirming like in the second half, and sometimes it’s preoccupied with universal themes of life and death, family, fear and loss. You genuinely felt drawn in, as she appeared on the screen, spluttering and thrashing around in the water, desperate for breath, watching her life slip away and using scenes from it to keep from going under with only a lifejacket for company. All of this unfolds as a huge piece of rigging mimicking a helicopter lurches out over the audience to look for her, searchlights blazing and billowing smoke. It’s audacious, not a little bit bonkers and utterly dazzling. It could have ended there, and that would have been enough of a live show. But we had the Aerial second half to come, then for the encore 50 Words For Snow’s Among Angels, just her on the piano and you could have heard a pin drop, before a big Cloudbusting finale.

I looked around the venue (recently refurbished and looking lovely, I’m glad to say, no longer the dump it latterly became) after it was all over and considered its history for both Kate Bush and myself. Epiphanies abounded. She sat in a seat not dissimilar to mine a few weeks before her 15
th birthday on July 3rd 1973 and saw Bowie’s ‘final’ show there, then sought out his mime teacher (to have such a thing, how very 70s) and took herself forward. (Sidebar: by then she had already written The Man With The Child In His Eyes, when she was 13; she recorded the album version when she was 16). In 1979 her tour ended in Hammersmith. In 2002 I saw Bowie there, and that was a landmark night. I’m not interested particularly in ranking and lists, but I can’t deny that last night was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, or likely ever will see. The love in the room was unlike anything I’ve experienced at a live show. At the end of Aerial, she sprouted a blackbird’s wing and flew away. Of course she did, because it was a remarkable and unforgettable night where anything was possible.

Hounds of Love
Top of the City
Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)
King of the Mountain

The Ninth Wave

Video Interlude - And Dream of Sheep
Under Ice
Waking the Witch
Watching You Without Me
Little Light
Jig of Life
Hello Earth
The Morning Fog

A Sky of Honey

An Architect's Dream
The Painter's Link
Aerial Tal
Somewhere in Between
Tawny Moon (performed by Albert McIntosh)


Among Angels