Music Photography

Violent Soho + Ceres + Black Deity @ Mansfield Tavern, 07.11.2014

Violent Soho @ Mansfield Tavern, Friday 7 November 2014

Driving the 15 minutes across Brisbane’s southern bible belt, from Salisbury where there are probably as many churches as shops, past Hillsong’s base in Mt Gravatt to Mansfield, Brisbane’s infamous religious heartland and the home of Violent Soho, it strikes that in over 10 years in Australia, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a proper suburban gig. I’ve been to shows in Paddington and West End but never anything as far from the heart of the city as Mansfield.

I’ve heard that shows at suburban pubs were a lot more common back in the 1980s and 1990s, before noise complaints from residential encroachments and the replacement of band rooms with the far more profitable pokies, took hold. The establishment of a dedicated entertainment precinct in Brisbane probably hasn’t helped, with the music scene now suffering from the success of transitioning into a few square blocks of an inner city area, as the clubs and bars have slowly taken hold to the detriment of the city’s live music scene.

The Mansfield Tavern is exactly what you expect from an Australian suburban pub. Nothing like them really exists in the UK but imagine an out of town pub in the same way you’d imagine an out of town shopping development and you’d have a good idea. A large car park in the middle of the site has a large bottle shop (off licence) on one side, the pub on the other side. Even by 8pm the car park is full and feeling a lot like Heavy Metal Parking Lot as people congregate by their cars with their mates before the show.

The band room itself is like a large cattleshed with air con. By the time the main support act, Ceres, play its packed. I’m not sure of the capacity but it must be in the 800 to 1,000 range. It’s puzzling that Soho have decided to play a national tour that includes some reasonably small venues considering the year they’ve had, especially given the impact they made at Splendour In The Grass back in July. Their last tour included three sold out nights at the 1,500 capacity Hi-Fi in Brisbane so the downsizing (at least in Brisabne) is curious even though it involves playing in their home suburb.

The success that the band has had is evident in that, by observation, they’ve reached the enviable and extremely rare status of being a band where it’s acceptable to wear one of their t shirts to their shows. Outside of a few bit metal bands and Pop Will Eat Itself, it’s an unwritten law that Soho have overcome. The room is packed with an array of Soho shirts from down the years, while the merch stand is doing a roaring trade on the most recent designs.

The downside of breaking out and achieving a crossover audience is that you can’t pick who likes you. Between acts it’s a case of make your own entertainment, with random sing-a-longs interspersed with far too many “Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi” chants, in the way that only Australians can bring nationalism to a night out at a pub seeing a band. The high levels of testosterone towards the front of the room manifests itself in the dudebros shaking out their beer cans over everyone before throwing the empties towards the stage and shirtless crowd surfers during the set. Even before Soho start, a dude manages to run onto the stage and attempts to stage dive a distance that includes clearing the foldback speakers as well as the photo pit but just manages to face plant it into the back of the barrier. Luckily he manages to miss a photographer and a couple of security people in the pit, but it looks like a near miss and no less painful for him.

One final entire room sing-a-long is provided with ‘Killing In The Name” before the band takes to the stage, bassist Luke Henery, first out as ever, Luke Boerdam , wearing that same Mudhoney t-shirt I’m convinced he wears at almost every show, and they launch straight into ‘Dope Calypso’.

As someone who’s only see the band play festival sets during 2014, it’s a similar setlist to those big shows and one that concentrates almost exclusively on the Hungry Ghost album and the standalone singles that came out between the second and third albums, with not much from the band’s formative years. Nine of the album’s 11 songs are included, with only the title track and ‘Liars’ absent.

‘Lowbrow’, ‘Gold Coast’ and ‘Neighbour Neighbour’ follow in quick succession, the band barely pausing between songs but it’s ’In The Aisle’ that provides the highlight of the first half of the set. Guitarist James Tidswell spitting out the “Waiting for God, Waiting for God” refrain in perfect unison with the crowd, while Luke Boerdam really howls out the verses, Luke Henery, always the visual focal point of the band, pulling out all of his best rock moves, drummer Michael Richards, as ever with his face obscured by his hair, thrashing across his drum kit.

The crowd are at the heart of this show; screaming out every word along with Boredom. ‘Saramona Says’ has the circle pit bros hugging each other as they yell “Let’s start a fire” at the top of their lungs and the slower-paced ‘Fur Eyes’ doesn’t bring much in the way of respite, even though there are couples trying to slow dance to it.

Waves after wave of crowd surfers keeps security busy in front of the band. With their attention taken up with what’s coming at them from the other side of the barrier, they miss another stage diver during ‘Tinderbox’ who’s brought a potted plant with him for the ride. Unlike the guy who failed miserably in his attempt to clear the barrier before the band started, this one has enough velocity to virtually Fosbury flop over everything and into the crowd. The good job and thankless task that security are doing is acknowledged by Tidswell a couple of songs before the end of the night.

Every show has its mid-set lull; sometimes it’s a slower song, sometimes an obscure B-side or a new track that no one knows. What’s really surprising is that tonight’s mid-song lull takes place during ‘Muscle Junkie’, a song from Soho’s first album and one that’s been a mainstay of their sets for years. It gets a muted response from the audience when Luke Henery starts up the intro bass riff and the reaction never really gets above a small rumble of appreciation. By comparison they follow it up with ‘Covered In Chrome’, the one song above all else that everyone wants to hear tonight, with the shirtless bros crowd surfing en masse as the rest of the room sings every word as loud as they can and turns it into one big mosh pit. I got into an argument on the Collapse Board contributors’ forum describing Soho as ‘Big dumb rock’ even though it was meant as a compliment. How can any song whose chorus is “YEAH” x 15 and which includes the refrain “HELL. FUCK.YEAH”, three words that have more or less become the festival chant of 2014 be anything else than good ol’ Big Dumb Rock in all its glory?

The printed setlists gaffa taped to the stage list ‘OK Cathedral’ as the final song of the night, one of Hungry Ghost’s more subtle songs, less Big Dumb Rock than it is more interesting shoegaze guitar textures. However, the way it’s played live, extended into a guitar battle between Boerdam and Tidswell, manages to combine both of these aspects and turn it into a stadium-sized anthem. It’s not printed on the setlist but how could they play in Mansfield and ignore not just one of their finest moments but a song that they probably wouldn’t have written if they hadn’t have lived here. So the night ends with an encore of ‘Jesus Stole My Girlfriend’, the perfect finale, the not just the sound of the suburbs but this particular suburb.

When it comes to Violent Soho, in my mind, the greatest philosophical question has always been why has it taken so long for Australia to pay attention to them. They always felt like one of Brisbane’s great undiscovered musical secrets and have always been one of the most loved bands within the city’s music scene even though no one else really seemed to be paying attention until the last year or two.

I’ve photographed them loads over the years.  The first time was when they were the second band on the indoor second stage at Market Day. I had some photos published by Mess+Noise to go with an interview with them back when Mess+Noise was still a printed magazine, and have photographed them at various support slots, headline shows and festivals since 2006. (Annoyingly they’ve obviously changed the Flickr URLs so none of those photos come across to the posts now, although they’re all on Flickr)

I think I put it best when I wrote in June 2009, almost five and a half years ago:

By right Violent Soho should be the ones with the number one records, with the Rolling Stone features, the extended interviews on Video Hits, on constant rotation on Triple J, playing the sell-out shows at huge venues, being lined up for the ARIAs. But the people of Australia have spoken. And they want Eskimo Joe. At least they do this year

It’s not like you can say Violent Soho are better than ever, they’ve always been this good, it’s just that everyone finally realised this. They’re no longer Brisbane’s best kept musical secret.

Cibo Matto + Richard In Your Mind + Ben Ely @ The Zoo, 29.10.2014

Cibo Matto @ The Zoo, Wednesday 29 October 2014

I have the photos to prove that I was there, but struggle to recall many memories from the night.  There are some nights when you become so pre-occupied with photographing that the night quickly passes you without making much of an impression.  It happens on ‘bad’ nights when you’re not happy with the photographs you’re taking and photograph far beyond the three song limit.  There’s usually no limit at the Zoo and although I generally try to limit my time photographing, not having that rule, especially at a venue like the Zoo that doesn’t have a photo pit, allows you greater scope to move around the venue at your leisure to try for different angles.

My unhappiness with the photos I’m taking tonight are twofold.

Photographing musicians, especially singers with sunglasses is a pet hate that rivals singers holding drinks.  I like to see peoples’ eyes when I’m photographing, windows to the soul and all that.  Similarly I also have issues with people who keep their eyes tightly shut when playing; those are often the times when the best songs are taken in the gaps between songs.  Miho Hatori keeps her sunglasses on for almost the entire show tonight (from memory there is a very short time later in the set when she does take them off but it’s very fleeting) and I just can’t get anything that I’m really happy with.

The other cause of unhappiness is instruments.  Yuka Honda stands behind her keyboards, laptop and microphone that makes it hard to get a clear shot of her.  There is a sweet spot but unfortunately it’s in the middle of the throng so I have to make do with moving from one side of the stage, around the back of the room to the another side to try and make do.  It’s a process that goes on for too much of the night than I’d ideally like and leaving a residual memory of photo frustration rather than one that focussed on the music.

Bedroom Suck Records’ 5th Birthday Party @ Black Bear Lodge, 19.10.2014

Terrible Truths @ Black Bear Lodge, Sunday 19 October 2014

Time may be getting faster every year but it’s crazy to look at how much Bedroom Sucks Records have achieved in the last five years, their first five years. As the man said, they’ve put out some of the best music in Australia in that time and keep going from strength to strength. By comparison, Collapse Board celebrated its four year anniversary at the end of August 2014 and while the site continues to dwell on the fringes, Bedroom Sucks keeps on manoeuvring itself for a full global assault. (I think CB just peaked too early. Plus CB is the Millwall of music writing – “No one likes us and we don’t care”).

To celebrate the fifth anniversary, BSR have put on a series of anniversary shows in Melbourne, Sydney, Newcastle, Adelaide and tonight in Brisbane to showcase their achievements with some of the acts signed to the label.

There’s no two ways of looking at it, Thigh Master is a great name for a band. They’ve got that primal post punk sound so beloved by so many Brisbane bands but combine it at times with that just out of tune 90s slacker rock. They’re at their best during their allotted 30 minutes when they get the twin guitar attack going for that that sweet fist pumping moment. They have a song called ‘Ric’s’ and joke that the birthday show should have been across the mall at Ric’s. It’s a one-liner that probably betrays their age, where as for an older crowd, the demise of Ric’s is something too sad to joke about.

Its the little things isn’t it? Put a man with a beard wearing a bad Hawaiian shirt on stage and just it’s a man with a beard wearing a bad Hawaiian shirt. But give him glittery silver eye shadow, a deep crimson lipstick and matching painted nails and suddenly you’ve got my interest no matter what else happens. Cannon have been around for a while but I’ve just never managed to catch them, which is my loss based on tonight’s proceedings. I take too many photos instead of paying full attention but soundwise they’ve got the Pere Ubu thing going on.

Out of all the BRS releases, the Primitive Motion album is one of my favourites and most played. I’ve only seen them play just the once though and I ended up writing some lukewarm words about the experience because it didn’t do justice to the songs in their recorded format on the album. I found them disappointing because it was all too harsh sounding and not lush and textured enough. Tonight is different because they are different and don’t play any songs I recognise. Instead of being disappointed by comparing them to their studio output, I’m totally enraptured with, what is to me, a completely different set of songs. Afterwards Everett tells me the first song is a cover by one of the Dunedin bands, although he can’t recall which one. Leighton introduces the second song as one they haven’t played for about three years. By the third song Sandra is on her third instrument of the night, having started behind the drum kit, before moving to the saxophone for the second song and finally to flute. It’s these songs, the third and the fifth, that have Primitive Motion at their peak, blissed out and sounding spell-binding. These songs remind me of early Spiritualized before they became too overblown and pompous. It’s music for lying in a field on a warm, light summer evening watching the sun eventually set over the horizon. Glorious stuff and if these are songs from their forthcoming new album, 2015 is going to get off to a great start.

Superstar aren’t the band I was expecting. Having checked my photographic records, it turns out I had somehow confused them with Holy Balm but both of them played at a Deadshits night at Woodland back at the start of 2011 so there is some rationale behind being confused. Instead of the more electronic dancey three-piece I was expecting, I get a female/male duo with lots of chorus and delay pedal action and those 1980s glassy keyboard sounds throughout. It’s at home late at night music more so than it is something I want to see on a Sunday night out in town. It’s the sweet sound of my bed calling me after a long day. Because it’s those things, it’s a struggle to enjoy as it’s just too soporific for where I want to be with another couple of acts to go.

I have a theory about live music photography which is that it’s all about hands. I learnt long ago (mostly from fashion photography) that it’s totally ok to chop the tops of people heads off, and that those crops work, but when photographing a musician playing an instrument on stage, if you don’t get both of their hands in the frame, it just doesn’t look right. It’s because of this theory that keyboard players are the worst to photograph; the height of the stage prevents you from fully capturing their performance. Peter Escott plays his set on an off-stage upright piano in the space between the merch table and the stairs and the roughly formed semi-circle that surrounds him gets to actually see him playing up close and personal. Given the rarity of a performer to play like this, it feels like a special moment and there’s something quite exquisite about the whole set-up. But despite the quiet nature of the solo piano and his voice at the back of the venue, well away from the speakers, most of those assembled around the piano decide that even in this close proximity, less than a couple of metres away, they’ll just use the opportunity to keep on with their conversations.

It’s a pet hate but tonight it just feels teeth-grindingly rude and I have to move back to the front of the venue nearer the speakers and away from a bunch of people I want to murder. I don’t have a view anymore but at least the proximity to the PA system helps drown out all the background conversations. Its stunning stuff to observe close up, just such a shame about the chattering masses.

A quick straw poll is unlikely to find anyone whose preferred time to be out seeing a band is 11:15pm on a Sunday night. The original plan is to only stay for a couple of Terrible Truths’ songs to get some photos.  Instead I’m completely blown away by them so stay until the bitter end, which, as it happens, is only 20 minutes away. I don’t know any of their songs or the titles but it takes less than half a song for them to not just become my new favourite band but also the best new (to me) band that I’ve seen in a long while. It wouldn’t surprise me if they get lazy comparisons to The Slits given the female vocals and reggae-influenced post-punk sound but it’s a whole lot less playful and fun and much more frenetic and frantic, more like Gang of Four at their best, especially with those call and response vocals. Not just Screaming Match good but *whispers* Screaming Match better. Sometimes, in addition to really enjoying a band play, you also just have to quietly contemplate how you’ve managed to miss a band this good for so long.

Happy Birthday Bedroom Suck Records and here’s to your next five years.

Courtney Barnett + D.D. Dumbo + Mosman Alder @ The Zoo, 11.10.2014

Courtney Barnett @ The Zoo, Saturday 11 October 2014

There was life before Kate Bush and there is life after Kate Bush. The live shows I’ve been to in the last couple of months just haven’t done it for me and it’s all La Bush’s fault for putting on the greatest show ever.

Admittedly, I haven’t set my aim that high since getting back to Australia. A jet-lagged No Bunny show in Perth provided the perfect Australian Welcome Back moment featuring a large, inebriated man being force fed tequila straight from the bottle by his mates and almost instantly vomiting all over the floor. At a Pop Will Eat Itself show back in Brisbane, Mary Byker played the part of Clint Mansell to the best of his abilities and showed that the feeling of warm nostalgia largely reconciles with memories of being young and stupid.

Sometimes Mosman Alder, tonight’s opening act show that they’ve been listening to Talk Talk when they haven’t been stenciling the pavements of Fortitude Valley with adversts for their album but it doesn’t escape the fact that it’s six people lined up in a row on stage playing earnest and serious music that doesn’t engage and just floats in the background.

Watching D.D Dumbo play you can’t help but think that he’s been earmarked to fill the gap between Gotye albums. The Australian music press proudly proclaim that he’s signed to 4AD in the way that only the Australian music press proudly proclaim music industry deals without a moment to reflect that 4AD in 2014 bears no resemblance to the 4AD that once existed back in the 80s and early 90s. Who knows, I might like him more if he didn’t sound so much like a Sting parody.

Two thirds of the way through the night and it’s another live show that’s not delivering in any size, shape or form. Has Kate Bush just ruined live music for me forever? It’s up to Courtney Barnett to rescue something from the night and, as far too many music writers would say, she absolutely kills it.

I’ve spent a lot of time this year listening to her A Sea Of Split Peas double EP compilation but all that time spent with her songs still doesn’t prepare me for her live show. Opening with ‘David’ and followed up straight away, without a second’s pause, by ‘Lance Jr’, the more genteel recordings that put the witty narratives and clever lyrics to the fore are replaced by a much more base and brutal display. It’s thrilling to be completely surprised and be presented with something that transcends what you’re expecting, all those tasteful piano flourishes that accompany her songs are discarded in favour of loud and furious distorted guitar.

It’s only listening to those EPs in the last few days that I’ve realised that all that squalling guitar is there, it’s just that true to modern recording style, the lack of dynamic range makes it a whole lot more subtle than when it’s being blasted out from the stage.

Although I’ve never seen her play before, I’ve heard that sometimes she plays as a trio without Dan Luscombe. Obviously Dan Luscombe can’t be omnipresent but basically, as tonight shows, everything is better with Dan Luscombe. His guitar playing completely steals the show, it’s as good as anything he’s done with The Drones. It’s allowed to because the everyone here already knows the words and melodies; they don’t need to be given prominence to carry the songs. There is that typical mid-show lull in proceedings when a couple of new songs, ‘Blah’ and ‘Pedestal’, are given a first airing to a Brisbane audience; it’s too early to tell whether they stand up to the small canon that Barnett has already put together, although the fairly recent ‘Depreston’, the first song of the encore, played solo, shows that it has already made an impact on the hardcore fans crammed at the front of the venue. The show sold out well in advance, although it doesn’t show, with the front half of the venue packed to bursting point, while the back half of the room is fairly empty.

She tells us she’s got a few more songs and that it’s the last show of the tour, as if to make us feel special for being there. A quick review of Setlist.fm for research purposes shows that she’s played the same songs in the same order for the whole tour. Perhaps it’s little wonder that they all sound so good. Having played ‘Depreston’ by herself, Barnett is joined by drummer Dave Mudie for the heavily rotated triple j favourite of ‘Pickles From The Jar’ before the rest of the band join her for the obvious night-ending, final encore of ‘History Eraser’.

“I hope you have a good rest of the night, I hope you have a good weekend and if I don’t see you again I hope you have a good rest of your life,” she tells us. There’s little doubt that we all be seeing her again, it’s just unlikely that we’ll be seeing her in venues as small as The Zoo next time.

Ghost Notes + Winternationale + Pale Earth @ The Waiting Room, 04.10.2014

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The final show at The Waiting Room.  It always felt that the DIY scene that I first found at 610 when I moved to Brisbane matured to the Hangar in Paddington and then progressed to the Waiting Room.  It probably explains why I’ve been seeing the same people at shows for the last decade, even though many of them I’ve never talked to and don’t even know their names.  The closing of the Waiting Room as a venue is, from what I see, the end of the era of regular DIY/BYO venues in Brisbane.  Real Bad Records in Moorooka did a few occasional shows but I think that they’ve also closed down now.

It’s a real shame but there’s no stuffing the juggernauts that are corporatisation of the music scene and gentrification.  Although I pass by the old 610 building just about every day, I’ve no idea what it’s used for inside.  Looking at the state of the Valley these days, it seems incredible to think what was going on inside only a few years ago.

It’s a fitting final show, with Ghost Notes an appropriate final headliner.  It was never my favourite venue to photograph in, but it will be missed.

Pop Will Eat Itself + Dog Machine + Monster Zoku Onsomb @ The Zoo, 05.09.2014

PWEI_TheZoo_05092014_027

Last Wednesday I was in London seeing Kate Bush, this Wednesday I was in Perth seeing No Bunny.  At one point during the show a bottle of whisky was passed from the stage into the audience, some ‘mates’ forced it down their mate’s throat and within seconds he is vomiting all over the floor.

Last Friday night I was in London seeing Kate Bush, this Friday I’m in Brisbane seeing Pop Will Eat Itself at The Zoo.  From the sublime to the ridiculous twice in a week.

I was completely convinced that I’d written a review for this show but could find no evidence of any text everywhere I looked.  I think I just drafted it in my head but never got around to actually writing those thoughts down.  Despite my ex describing PWEI as ‘music for football hooligans’, I’ve always had a soft spot for and they hold a special place in my heart that owes much to nostalgia and memories of good times in the late 80s and early 90s.  This Is The Day, This Is The Hour, This Is This and The Looks Or The Lifestyle were a part of the soundtrack to those times and although time might not have been kind to the technology used in creating those albums, I still regard them as fun albums filled with stupid songs.  As a band renown for selling more t-shirts than records, they’re a band that was never taken seriously and I don’t think they ever really got their dues for doing something that was creative and different.  They were a collection of brilliant t-shirt designs.  Most of the reason I don’t buy as many t-shirts as I did back when I was a poor penniless student has less to do with any notion that I’m far too old to be wearing band t-shirts and a lot more to do that so little effort is put into the designs these days.  It’s probably because you don’t get a people like the Designers Republic designing band t-shirts anymore.

I think I only saw PWEI the once, a show at The Riverside in Newcastle, from memory one of two shows (the other was in Middlesbrough if I recall correctly) in support of the ‘Karmadrome’ single.  It was a sell-out show, and one of those legendary nights at The Riverside when the temperature reached tropical levels and the sweat dripped from the ceiling.  I still have the t-shirt to prove it.

Knowing how it works, part of me was tempted to wear said t-shirt tonight.  PWEI, Iron Maiden and Slayer are about the only bands where it’s allowable to wear the band’s t shirt to the show.  There are plenty of examples on show tonight, ones from various tours and times over the years.

The PWEI on show tonight only has one member from the original/classic line-up.  Although when they first reformed, having discovered all the old files in someone’s shed if I remember correctly, they played some shows with Clint Mansell, these days he’s too busy doing soundtracks for Hollywood.  It’s always been one of pop’s most unlikely stories.  This leaves Graham Crabb as the sole survivor.  Although he was co-vocalist, I don’t have strong memories of him on stage, possibly because Clint Mansell with his long dreads made a much stronger visual impression.  The part of Clint Mansell is ably played by Mary Byker, once of that classic 80s named band, Gaye Byker On Acid, (who also played shows in drag as Lesbian Dopeheads On Mopeds).

Although there’s a new album to plug, most of the set is drawn from that 1989 – 1995 period, as you would expect.  The new songs sound like the old songs, the only difference being that few in the crowd know them, everyone is here for the nostalgia trip.  It’s a long set, too long to be honest; 21 PWEI songs is a lot to listen to in one sitting.  It’s a bit uneven as at times the band seem to flag.  There are some notable standouts during the set though, with ‘Ich Bin Ein Auslander’ and ‘Preaching to the Perverted’ being the highlights.  Many of the other songs are good but, almost 8 months on, those are the ones I remember most of all.

At the end of the night part of me is tempted to buy a new t-shirt from the merch desk but in the end I decide not to.  As much as they’re one of those bands that I’ll always have a soft spot for, I think I’ve moved on and am happy for them to be a happy memory from my past.

Kate Bush @ Hammersmith Apollo, 27.08.2014 & 29.08.2014

Before The Dawn - Sold Out

I don’t think I dream like other people do. My dreams are rarely about events or occurrences in my life, past or present, and seldom about the people in it, be they friends, family or loved ones.  My mostly commonly recurring dreams centre on gigs and live music, and especially photographing them.  The usual synopsis is that I’m either lost in the backstage labyrinths of a venue or can see the outside stage far in the distance when the band starts to play and I need to find my path to the photo pit or fight my way through the massive crowd before the third song ends.  I’m fairly certain that a psychoanalyst would have an absolute field day with those revelations.

Late last year I dreamt that Kate Bush announced a tour of the UK, the anguish of being stranded on the other side of the planet in my unconscious state soothed by the relief on waking that this was Kate Bush we were talking about and she was never going to be announcing live dates.

It was early evening in Australia and I was on the train back from work when the Kate Bush live show comeback was announced on Twitter, leaving me experiencing disbelief, excitement and disappointment all at the same time.   When I received the email telling me, that thanks to being on her record label’s mailing list I was eligible for pre-sale tickets, it felt like the universe had conspired just to personally taunt my geographic disadvantage.  But thinking it through, I just couldn’t come up with a good enough reason really stopping me from at least trying to get tickets. The one over-arching counter-argument was that if I didn’t I would always look back on it with regret.  There’s only really ever been one musical artist that I would be prepared to fly to the other side of the world to see perform and this was probably going to be a one-off opportunity.

Getting tickets was surprisingly easy, far more so than trying to get tickets for some of the big Australian shows and festivals.  Admittedly I had made sure I was properly prepared by setting up an account, registering all my details in advance and there was a touch of military precision in having a live clock window on screen so that the very second it struck 9:30am Greenwich Mean Time, I was hitting the ‘Buy’ button.

I’d decided that I’d try for second night tickets.  I guessed everyone would be trying for the first night (and the last night), so second night would be easier to get while everyone else was stuck in a queue for first night tickets.

There was little time to think, I just wasn’t bothered about where the seats were, I was only considering the most expensive ones.  It didn’t make a lot of sense to come all the way from Brisbane and then decide to turn into a cheapskate and plump for the standing-at-the-back cheap option.  This is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion, a massive treat to myself.  Why wait all this time and go to all this effort and not try for the best seats?  The trickiest part of the whole process was completing the captcha: it always is but this time I was shaking so much that I’d lost the ability to type.  And then it was done, I had tickets to the second night.

Call it greed or call it sensible contingency planning, but I then decided to try to get tickets for a second show.  To go to all this effort, to fly around the world and for one reason or another the show got cancelled or postponed? It didn’t bear thinking about.  Logic told me to avoid consecutive nights in case illness played a part which left the Friday night, the fourth show of the run as the most convenient date to fit in with flights.  The original plan was to only take hand luggage, fly on the Tuesday night, arrive in London on Wednesday afternoon, get the Piccadilly line straight to Hammersmith for the show and then fly back on Saturday lunchtime, arriving in Brisbane Sunday night, going back to work on Monday as if I’d never been away.  But arriving less than 4 hours before showtime was pushing it a bit in case the flight was delayed.  Flying a day early on Monday night made little sense, which pushed it back to Friday night to get a weekend in London, and eventually Wednesday night to fit in a family wedding down in Devon on the Saturday that I didn’t know the date for when I booked the tickets.  A three day long-weekend had turned into a much more leisurely eight day sojourn sandwiched between a day of travelling on each side.

Having booked the tickets in March, it was a long five month wait but as the show day got nearer, and especially once I got to London, the initial excitement lapsed into trepidation and apprehension.  There’s very little in my life that I’ve had to wait this long for and how can anything live up to the expectations that have played out in my daydreams for more than 25 years?  What if it’s terrible?  Sure I can laugh it off to experience, put it down to “one of those things”, counter with a limp “Oh well, at least I can now say I saw Kate Bush” but how bitterly disappointed am I going to be behind that fake smile.  Even sat in my expensive seat, mere metres away from the stage, counting down the minutes before it’s due to start, I can’t fully relax.

The first cheer of the night is for the announcement over the PA politely reminding everyone of the much publicised request that there be no photographic or video devices.  It’s a request that’s met with complete compliance; there isn’t a hint of a glowing LCD screen throughout the entire show.  More than that, there is no chatter from the audience; during the quietest moments you could hear the proverbial pin drop.  It was such a delightful experience to be allowed to be completed engaged in the performance without the slightest distraction from those around you.

The roar builds as the band take to the stage and as soon as the barefoot Kate Bush makes her entrance, leading the line of backing singers, the entire audience are on their feet, a welcome that extends to an almost uncomfortable length as the players gaze out almost awkwardly from the stage as if they weren’t expecting this reaction.

It’s only the first of countless standing ovations over the course of the next three hours.  It’s not just there are ovations at key points in the show or at the end of particular songs; throughout there are spontaneous pockets of people rising to their feet, applauding moments that  have resonated with them and fulfilled the emotional expectations of waiting all these years to see them performed in the flesh.

After 35 years away, you might expect a strong start but instead the show starts with ‘Lily’, a so-so song from a so-so album, and not only that, but the inferior Director’s Cut arrangement.   If you’d selected a shortlist of songs with which Kate Bush would make her live comeback, it’s very unlikely that you would have chosen ‘Lily’ (when I put together my dream playlist back in March, I went with ‘Hounds of Love’; it would have brought the house down).  ‘Lily’ is such an odd, low key choice.

There’s no time to pause for the standing ovation as it’s followed straight up by a slightly rushed ‘Hounds Of Love’ that slightly loses its subtlety and depth when played by a loud seven piece rock band.  A much stronger Red Shoes song, ‘Top Of The City’ is next, a song that really gives her the opportunity to showcase her voice, before the unmistakable opening chord to ‘Running Up That Hill’ does bring the house down, only slightly later into the night than I had first predicted in my dream setlist.

All the anticipation, trepidation, expectation leads into straight into a strange feeling of conflict during these opening songs; this wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  Treading the boards in front of a backline of musicians, playing the space between them and the front of the stage, a row of backings singers at the side? It’s all too conventional, too traditional, just like any other show when I was expecting something more, something to put it above and beyond any normal gig.  But at the same time, that voice, that divine sound, the most perfect of all instruments; it’s even more glorious than I ever could have imagined.  It’s obviously not the same voice as the nineteen year old who sung ‘Wuthering Heights’ but every one already knew that.  It’s the rich, fuller, deeper tones that she’s been singing with for the last 30 years and it’s utterly flawless through the next three hours.

It all changes with ‘King Of The Mountain’.  On record it’s a song that marked a welcome comeback after 13 years away, tonight it just explodes and eclipses everything that has come before it.  The first few songs were played fairly straight and faithful to the recorded versions but with ‘King Of The Mountain’, the entire band just seems to have instantly relaxed into the moment, and the song is looser and less rigid for it.  Towards the end of the song percussionist Mino Cinélu disappears from his place on the stage, an area that extends about half the width of the Apollo, and re-appears from the side of stage, striding to the centre and starts putting his whole body into spinning a bullroarer in an arc around himself – “The wind it blows”.  The strobe lighting highlighting his movements as he becomes engulfed by smoke, the paper cannons exploding from the sides of the stage announcing the real start of the show.  It’s all too brief before the curtain falls on the stage, bringing a stunned crowd to their feet once again.

It’s only a momentary break; the curtain raising to a much changed stage set, the band moved to the back of the stage, framed on either side by the skeletal ribs of a sunken ship.  A video screen at the top of the stage plays sets the scene with a recording of an astronomer calling in an SOS message to the coastguard, although it falls into that awkward space between drama and comedy without making it clear which one.

The three days filming in the water tank at Pinewood Studios has been much publicised in advance of the run of shows and it’s from this that ‘The Ninth Wave’ starts, as the screen fades to Kate Bush adrift in the water, her lifejacket only just holding her head above the water, as the beep of her flashlight introduces ‘…And Dream Of Sheep’.  Given the importance of this song as the start of the song cycle and given just how loved a song it is, it feels a bit of a missed opportunity to have it only as a pre-recorded video playback.  I don’t know if she’s having a quick sit down between acts or has nipped out back for a crafty Silk Cut and a Kit Kat (I had/possibly still have a poster of her from Look-In, presumable from the very early 1980s where she basically listed those two things as her vices) but could it have been even better if she had lip synced against the film recording, the beautifully fragile vocal performed live and not just recorded several months earlier?  Most reviews and comments I’ve read disagree and pinpoint it as one of the outstanding moments of the night.  A highly choreographed ‘Under Ice’ ends with Kate disappearing to the back of the stage, before the players, armed with picks and a chainsaw cut open the ice, drag her out from the water, before she slips back under.

In all these years of trying to piece together how The Ninth Wave could ever be performed live, one of the main stumbling blocks was how to tackle ‘Waking The Witch’.  A complete piece of studio genius that involved singing the words, reversing the direction of the playback and learning the song backwards in order to record it backwards, and reversing the tape once again so that it played forwards in amongst the rest of the arrangement; the stuttering vocal delivery that’s not quite as it should be, not quite human, the result.  In a live setting it starts with the same vocal introduction as the recording before being delivered in a rabid religious sermon style from chorus member Jo Servi, with Kate and the backing singers making the response.  It might not be as clever as the recorded version but it comes close to sounding as unworldly.

As on the album, the run-in to the end of ‘The Ninth Wave’ is one of the most sublime performances that you are ever likely to see.  It manages to meet all the expectations and deliver on all those dreams of what seeing Kate Bush play live would be.  ‘Watching You Without Me’ starts with a set change, with a living room/ship hybrid design taking centre stage and the closest the show comes to Am- Dram with a skit featuring her son, Albert McIntosh, and chorus member, Bob Harms.  It’s interesting seeing the same scene played out a second time a couple of nights later and noticing that the dialogue is slightly different. Still, the moment the door on the set is shut to reveal Bush hiding behind it is a surprisingly startling moment, even though the set-up was probably fairly obvious.

‘Jig Of Life’ is reasonably faithfully created on stage, John Carder Bush proving the mid-song monologue in black and white via video screens that pop up at the front of the stage rather than performing in person.  The approach probably works better this way, the monochrome contrast with the rest of the set and pre-recorder performance giving it a real focus within the song rather than being lost in the midst of the other players.

In wondering for almost 30 years on how all these songs could ever be brought to life on stage, it always came back to how a song like ‘Hello Earth’ could ever come close to matching the majesty of the recorded version and how could you do it without a cast of thousands, owing to the integral part the male voice choir plays in the song.  The simple answer is that technology has come along so far in the interim years that you can just do anything/everything with a computer.  Another set change for this song brings out a shipping buoy to the middle of the stage, the song culminating with Bush being taken from the buoy and being carried shoulder high in a funeral procession that leads down from the stage onto the floor and out through one of the exit doors, the sampled choral voices forming a long, extended accompaniment.  It’s staggering to see the song realised on stage in such a way.

With the entire band moving to the front of the stage and starting ‘The Morning Fog’, the final song of the Ninth Wave suite, it’s startling to see Bush dispense with formalities of any sort and come back through the same door she exited from and casually stroll back to the stage to join the rest of the cast.  ‘The Morning Fog’ has always carried a magical presence and a long-held memory of listening to the album on my Walkman on rainy autumnal afternoons in the mid-1980s, the song ending only to be taken out, turned over and re-inserted for another playback of the album from start to finish.  The soothing nature of the song made it an obvious choice when setting a ringtone alarm on my phone.  Early mornings might be my own personal Kryptonite but counteracting with a few seconds of ‘The Morning Fog’ helps counteract the shock of the new day starting.

The second act of the shows ends, par for the course, with another standing ovation and the announcement of an interval.

Although I quickly flicked through the programme before the show started, it was quickly clear that it contained far too many spoilers as to what lay ahead, so I stopped reading.  Going on the second night I’d already had a whole day of avoiding spoiler reviews in the papers and on the web.  As was confirmed on the tube on the way home afterwards, the programme went into great detail on how they put the show together, with plenty of words and photos devoted to performing ‘Sky Of Honey’.

It wasn’t much of a surprise that this formed the third act of the night.  Where can you go after ‘The Ninth Wave’ that wouldn’t be a massive anti-climax for the final hour of the evening?  It was on my dream setlist, although I was happy to have it truncated to the final two songs of the cycle, ‘Nocturn’ and ‘Aerial’.    It’s the undoubted highlight of Bush’s limited 21st century output but what’s really surprising is that instead of it being an anti-climax after the majesty of ‘The Ninth Wave’, it eclipse in terms of the performance.  It’s a back-handed compliment but it works as a more cohesive live piece than ‘The Ninth Wave’.  The individual songs may not be as musically adventurous, the stage sets may not be quite as lavish but in terms of a live performance, it flows better as a single suite of music.

Bush spends a large portion of the third act of the night behind her grand piano, the positioning of the band having been reconfigured during the interval to the left hand side of the stage, with most of the performance taking on the right hand side.  A massive set of doors lower from the roof and opens to reveal the puppet that the pre-show leaked spoilers have mentioned.  It’s not “puppet” in the form of marionettes, as I’d imaged but as a child-sized, wooden mannequin, attached to a puppeteer dressed all in black, who guides it around the stage.

The child-like puppet forms a main part of the visual focus throughout the third act, the other being ‘The Painter’, who spends his time climbing up and down a set of stepladders, dabbling at a framed video screen of clouds that changes hue over the course of the day.  Given that the role was played by Rolf Harris on the album, how it would be played out in the performance, or whether it would be quietly dropped and replaced by something else, was always going to be a major consideration.  In the end the part was taken on by her son, who also took a new song in the suite, ‘Tawny Moon’.  As far as I can tell, this was an especially written song rather than being an outtake from the original album.

Having read all of the reviews after the event, Billboard (surprisingly) put together a good summary of ‘A Sky Of Honey’, writing “With the singer performing for the most part from behind a piano, visual accompaniment consisted of little more than a puppeteer operating a child-size wooden mannequin while Bush’s son, Bertie, playing a 19th century artist, dabbled at a giant cloud covered canvas and dancers in mediaeval dress moved in slow motion.  What does it all mean? Who knows, but it’s certainly more entertaining than watching your standard veteran act going through the motions for a reunion tour paycheck”.

Billboard may be correct in questioning what it all means, but the way it all builds to a crescendo is simply magnificent.   The call and response in ‘Aerial’ between guitarist David Rhodes, Bush providing the song bird sounds, both, along with the rest of the band now adorned with bird masks, Bush also with a bird wing attached to one of her arms, the collective intake of breath when the wooden mannequin out of nowhere breaks free from the puppeteer and runs across the stage, that one final, glorious moment when Bush retreats out of sight, return to view with a second wing now attached and takes flight high above the stage as the band reaches the very end of the suite.  It’s nothing less than incredible.

It could have ended then.  Everyone would have wandered out of the Apollo in a communal, speechless, mouth-opened daze from the last few minutes of performance they’d witnessed but it could have been a perfect end.  No need for encores or any last thank yous, just those perfect last few moments.  Instead the standing ovation count increases further with Bush returning to the stage and taking her seat behind her piano and playing ‘Only Angels’, the only song on the setlist from 50 Words For Snow, her latest album.  The silence during the performance is almost eerie.  The request for no phones or photos has been met with overzealous compliance throughout, and it’s a very strange sensation to be in a room of 5,000 being that quiet, that still.  It probably owes a lot to playing to a generally older crowd who can remember concerts without that now ever-present LCD screen and the need to digitally capture every moment for posterity.  The band make their return to the stage for the night’s final song, a version of ‘Cloudbusting’ which is a bit too ‘clap-along-a’ for my liking, but I guess that after a 25 year wait, you have to crowd what they most want at the end of the night.

It’s a five stars performance. 10/10. A Pitchfork perfect 10.0.  It’s all these things, not because I’ve been caught up in all the hysteria and hype (which has reached crazy levels in the days leading up to start of the shows, and judging by the number of articles in the broadsheets in the week after, has continued with almost daily stories) but because it’s been a magical three hours, just one of the great shows of all time.  Sure, there is some hammy acting.  And sure, there are some minor quibbles with song choices in the first act, but that’s all they are really; just minor quibbles arguing over a couple of songs.  For me, it was less to do with wanting to hear ‘The Hits’, which seemed to be the main, albeit, very limited criticism, and more to do with so many fantastic songs on five albums that didn’t get included, even though at least four albums-worth of material was probably never even considered for this run of shows.  (It was rumoured that ‘Never Be Mine’ from The Sensual World had been rehearsed but I don’t think it made it into any of the 22 shows).

When faced with an unenviable and virtually unachievable task of meeting every Kate Bush’s hopes and dreams, ‘Before The Dawn’ did everything it could to achieve it.  In reality she probably need to do all this; the 18 months planning and preparation to put in such a spectacular show.  She could have just sat at a piano and played solo for a couple of hours and the shows would have sold out just as quickly.  She could have played the whole show in the same way as the first part, stood in front of a backing band, and she still would have got standing ovation after standing ovation and all those rave reviews.  But I don’t think doing the simple thing was ever on the cards, it’s not her style.

Although it was treated as a complete one-off, once in the lifetime, ridiculously over-indulgent and extravagant present to myself, if it were to happen again, and if I could get tickets, I’d be there again in a heartbeat.  There’s not the slightest regret.  It only reinforced more than ever that if I hadn’t done it, I would have spent the rest of my days regretting that I didn’t go.  I thought I’d be getting at least one Christmas present of the DVD from the show but eight months on there’s no sign of anything being released from the two nights they filmed.  Perhaps she just didn’t like how it looked on screen.  Maybe she just didn’t think it did justice to how it compared to the real life experience.  I don’t think there will be a repeat performance, I think (sadly) she’s probably finished with live shows.  Where do you after ‘Before The Dawn’? Where can you go? Still, I’ll keep on dreaming for a double bill of The Dreaming and The Sensual World for next time.

I Used To Skate Once 10 @ The Zoo, 26.06.2014

I Used to Skate Once 10 @ The Zoo, Thursday 27 June 2014

An ever-present in my social diary as soon as they announce the dates. Looking forward to this year’s show although not sure how much the change from a Thursday night to a Friday night will change it. I liked it best when The Zoo opened at 5:30pm and I could saunter over straight from work rather than hang around for a few hours for door to open.  It’s always tempting to buy some art at the show but you have to get it there pretty early to get the best stuff.