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.

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