Kate Bush Before The Dawn: An Appreciation
March 21, 2014
Kate Bush announces she will be performing a series of shows in London, her first live performances in 35 years. K and I have both been long time, rabid fans of Kate’s, and never dreamed she would do a live show ever again. Hearing that news was almost as surreal as the email I received a few days later that stated I was eligible for presale tickets, having signed up for information from her web site about Aerial, her first album release in 15 years, way back in 2005. March 26th was pre-sale day for her 15 show residence at The Hammersmith Apollo in London, and I had a pass code! I was up at 5:30 am to buy tickets, which was going well, until our credit card company decided that it was fraud and denied us. Row E center were my seats for September 17th, but they had evaporated from my grasp. After the demand revealed by the pre-sale, she agreed to add 7 more shows for a total of 22 performances. These would be added to the end of the run, and went on sale on March 28th. After clearing up the issue with my credit card company, I was ready, having preloaded all my information, save the credit card number, on the ticket website. I decided to buy tickets for one of the new shows, since I figured everything decent would be gone for the original 15. We got the fifth row again, row, E, but this time over on the right side of the theater, almost on the far end. It didn’t matter, we were going to see Kate Bush!
Wednesday September 24th, 2014
I wake up and look at the ceiling. Today is the day. The whole reason for our trip. Tonight we were seeing Kate Bush. K first heard Kate when she was living in Watford, a London suburb, in 1979. Her first single, Wuthering Heights, recorded when she was just 19 years old, made her a star in the UK, but she’d always remained an enigma in the states. My first exposure to Kate was in college in 1982, when I bought a record called The Dreaming. I read a review at the time that prompted me to buy it without even hearing it first. The first line was “This is what progressive music would have been, had it ever progressed.” Kate calls it her “the girl’s gone mad” album. Within a month I had bought the three earlier albums as well as a Japanese Pressing of The Dreaming to listen to on special occasions. Two of my three roommates bought copies, and we would switch off so no one’s got ruined. It stands today as my favorite of her albums, which is why it pains me that Kate won’t be playing anything from that album tonight. She won’t be playing anything from her first four albums, so no Wuthering Heights, or K’s favorite, The Man With The Child In His Eyes, either.
I wanted to try to remain as clueless about the shows as possible, so it would be a complete surprise, but I also knew that we’d be seeing the 18th of 22 shows, and it was going to be quite a slog trying to get through that 7 weeks from her first show until our show with complete ignorance. So I peeked. Well more like obsessively pored over every piece of minutia that I could find. When it became apparent there would be no deviation from the set list each night, I made a play list of the show on my iPod to listen to. I even downloaded a bootleg (sorry Kate!) off the web of the second show, but except for three 5 second snippets to check for audio quality, I have refused to listen to it until the plane ride home.
Oh, and I found out one other thing. Row E isn’t the fifth row. They took out rows A-D for the stage. Row E is the front row!
We have a whole day before Kate, so we take the double decker bus down to Piccadilly Circus, for another Kate related activity. Snap Galleries, a rock and roll photo art gallery is having a Kate exhibition. We head down early, and for the first time, the weather I feels like I’m in London. It’s slightly cool, drizzly, and overcast. We find the address of the Snap gallery on Piccadilly road, but it’s obvious that isn’t where it is. I give them a quick call, and it turns out the address is the number of their shop in the arcade building. It would have been nice if he gave me the arcade building name (it had one), or the street number of the arcade building (it had one), but he did not. Anyway, we finally tracked him down, and were greeted by beautiful pictures of Kate from either 1978- 1979, photography by Gered Mankowitz and from 1982-1989, photography by Guido Harari. There are large, expensive prints available for most of the images, but I opt for the two gallery books. I would kill for a signed Harari Rubberband Girl print, but I don’t have an extra 1500 pounds hanging about.
The ride to the Hammersmith Apollo seemed to take forever. The venue is actually called the Eventim Apollo, but it was the Hammersmith Odeon for most of it’s existence, and the Underground stop is called Hammersmith, so I think Hammersmith Apollo is a good compromise. We grab a quick pint across the street in the train station, but I’m anxious to get in, so we make our way across to the queue line, have my ID checked so it matches the ticket, we are scanned and enter the Apollo.
The Apollo had fallen into disrepair, but the venue was being renovated in 2014. Kate was looking for a place to do the residency and had discounted Hammersmith, but when she saw the renovations, and discovered that the weeks they wanted to stage the shows were all still open, a deal was struck to stage Before The Dawn there. The renovation marked the return of the beautiful art deco details that are scattered around everywhere inside the building. From the mosaic floor of the lobby, to the beautiful windows behind the second floor bar. We go upstairs to buy our merchandise, where I’d read the lines were shorter, and they were. We got a drink at the bar, went to the bathroom one final time, then we made our way to the front row, where there are 2 young men to my right, then nine people (including K) to my left, then the aisle, then the center section, where we would have been sitting if I’d thought to set up my credit card prior to trying to use it that first day. Damn!
The tension in the room is palpable as the crew checks the mics and instruments. When the lights go off, the crowd erupts in applause, music begins to play, and the spoken word intro to the song Lily begins, when the intro ends, the music starts to swell, and suddenly less than 30 feet from us, walking straight toward us is the divine Kate Bush herself. While not the lithe 21 year old who danced across this stage in 1979, Kate has blossomed into a beautiful, bountiful Earth goddess. She shuffles out barefoot with her five backing singers, including 16 year old son Albert (called Bertie by mum), her face beaming in a beatific smile. Making her way to center stage, she picks the microphone up, and begins to sing, and there it is, the elusive sound that only Kate can make, the voice, that voice. Kate’s amazing voice. The voice I never thought I would ever hear live. I have a huge lump in my throat, that lasts through the first three songs. It is the first time that I start to cry.
After Lily, Kate thanks us, and her speaking voice sounds so slight, it seems impossible to be from the same woman who just finished singing. Before I had time to process it, Bertie is singing “It’s in the trees, It’s coming!”, and we’re on to The Hounds Of Love. These are the first of six songs that will form the first part of the show. While Kate proves with this section that she can just front a band and sing her songs, it’s not the Kate we know and love. It’s too normal, not theatrical enough. Still hearing Joanni, Top of the City, Running Up That Hill, and King of the Mountain, even in this most conventional of concert settings is phenomenal. Kate’s voice soars at the coda of Top of the City, and it reaches guttural highs during King of the Mountain.
It is the end of this song that signifies the start of the second part of the show, The Ninth Wave. This seven song cycle tells the story of a woman swept into the icy Atlantic with only her life preserver and signaling beacon to help her. The percussionist, Mino Cinelu comes out to center stage with a bullroarer, an ancient instrument that sounds like an oncoming train, or even more appropriately, a storm. Cannons go off as confetti is spit out over the audience. It is made of small 2 x 4 inch tissue paper with the words from a Tennyson poem that appears on the album, and gives The Ninth Wave it‘s name. A screen drops in front of the band, and we are shown a short film of an astronomer who is calling the Coast Guard because he’s received a message full of static that a boat has gone down, and needs help.
The screen rises to reveal the band, now pushed back on the stage, and behind the skeletal remains of a ship, the support structure jutting up like ribs on a whale skeleton. Above the band a film is shown of Kate lying in the water, her beacon shining, and the first lines of the Ninth Wave are sung on film, “Little light shining.” Tears and goosebumps well up again as she sings those words. What follows is a tale of a woman adrift, going in and out of consciousness, in delirium at times. After And Dream of Sheep, we are plunged into icy waters for Under Ice. It is here that skeletal fish people arrive on the scene, draping the stage in fine dark blue cloth, and waving air under it to give the illusion of waves. People frantically attack the ice with axes and a chainsaw, only to have Kate emerge from below, as well as a pair of large black wings.
The delirium continues with Waking the Witch, where Kate’s character begs for mercy and offers penance for her sins. It is during this song that the recurring theme of blackbirds is most pronounced with the first time we hear the sung lyric, “this blackbird, there’s a stone around my leg “. Kate has said that the parts of the Ninth Wave that are filmed are what really happens, what happens on the stage happens in her character’s mind. At this point a helicopter starts sweeping over the crowd. A huge contraption with fans blowing air, movement, and spot lights, this roaming behemoth, really gives the impression that there is a helicopter in the room with us.
A cut away living room set and a rig that allows it to shift back and forth as if on the waves, shows the character’s husband and son, playfully arguing with each other while they await her return, ignorant of the peril she’s in. She sings the song Watching You Without Me from behind the couch they sit on, like a specter, a ghost of who she was.
Next is Jig of Life, where the character is fighting for her life “C’mon let me live girl.”, as the jig winds down, a buoy is towed onto the stage, rocking in the waves. As Kate on the film starts to sing the next song Hello Earth, six fish people lower her down from the buoy, taking her into the audience, and out the side of the theater. She returns triumphantly at the end of the song in time to sing the final song of The Ninth Wave, The Morning Fog, which shows our heroine back at home, and extolling the love of the family that she appreciates even more now. The crowd responds viscerally when she sings the line “D’you know what? I love you better now”. She thanks us once again, says that they will be taking a break, and the lights rise for the interval. I am amazed. I knew the story of the woman was there, but some parts really never fit into the narrative when listening to the album. Seeing the visual representation drove home how all the songs really are connected to form a coherent story.
The interval is 20 minutes, and I take some time to grab two handfuls of the Tennyson poem confetti, and bring it back to the back half of the auditorium, as it only fell on the front half. After I hand that out, I grab a quick bathroom break, and I rush back to my seat for part two, A Sky of Honey, the second CD from her 2 CD album Aerial from 2005. Another song cycle, this is a much more pastoral and conceptual piece. Prior to hearing she was doing it live, I was only more than familiar with a few songs from it. The rest, while interesting and oh so Kate, didn’t live up to the expectations that 15 years had imposed on the record, for me at least. Many fans disagree with me, and consider it her masterpiece.
As a more conceptual piece, Kate was free to do whatever she wanted with A Sky of Honey. Ultimately the songs are simply about a beautiful English day, from sun up to dawn the following day. The themes of birth, creation, and procreation aren’t far behind. The Sky of Honey begins, and we see two large doors, 20-25 feet tall, the band is pushed over to stage right, and stage left, our side, has all the theatrical pieces. The doors open, it is snowing behind them. As the songs prelude and Prologue are played, a 4 foot tall artists pose-able model walks onto stage. It is a puppet, with the black clothed puppeteer behind him. It becomes obvious that the “boy” is frightened of birds, and is very attached to Kate.
A large video screen behind the band shows film of flying birds throughout much of A Sky of Honey. For the next 2 songs, An Architect’s Dream, and The Painter’s Link, there is a large digital framed painting that Kate’s son, who plays the painter is “painting”. During this time, Kate is singing, the band is playing, the model boy is walking around, Bertie is painting, it’s hard to take it all in. The next song is Sunset, and it is one of the few that grabbed me on first listen. It starts slowly, and towards the end it transforms into a almost flamenco infused groove, that is barely a minute on the album, but stretches out to about 3 minutes live. The band comes out from behind their kits, and play the song on hand held instruments, it is truly magical. This is followed by Aerial Tal, a song where Kate sings in birdsong. It’s the kind of thing that could be the most laughable, most insane thing you’ve ever seen or heard, but somehow it isn’t. Maybe it’s the sincerity with which she performs.
Somewhere In Between is next, the second of the songs I knew well. This is followed by Tawny Moon, a new song, that is sung by Bertie. Now a word about Bertie. By all accounts we have him to thank for keeping after his mother, and encouraging her when she wanted to quit. He is credited as Creative Advisor. Without Bertie there is no Before The Dawn, so I’m forever grateful. But he’s only sixteen, and though he does a fine job in his role, he doesn’t have a good enough voice yet to be carrying a song by himself while his mother is offstage. I know she’s proud of him, but I’d have loved to hear her sing this song. Somewhere in this sequence of songs, I don’t remember quite where, the wooden boy kills a bird with graphic blood splatter on the screen behind.
The song cycle ends with the next two songs, Nocturn, and Aerial. These are both favorites, but Aerial is the one I love the most short of Sunset. It doesn’t disappoint live, either. The artists model breaks free of his puppeteer and runs across the stage. Halfway through the song, the band dons bird skull masks, and the last 5 minutes of the song are a mock “battle” between Kate (now adorned with a blackbird wing on her right arm, and guitarist David Rhodes. They stalk around one another, David playing guitar, Kate singing, as the music begins to rise to a crescendo, Kate, goes behind the double doors, and two trees slam down into the stage, one plunging directly through the end of Kate’s grand piano. As the songs final notes are played the doors open, and Kate, now with two black wings runs through the doors, and takes flight, going up about 3 feet off the ground, an image that lasts only for a second for, as she leaps, the lights go out.
The crowd is insane for the short time before Kate is standing once again in front of us. She thanks us once again, and sits behind the piano, tree still sticking out of it, and plays Among Angels, from her most recent release, 50 Words For Snow. Just her, a piano, and her voice. Finally she ushers the band back to he stage, and they break into Cloudbusting, from Hounds of Love. The tears start flowing again, especially when the whole crowd is singing along with Kate at the end “yay-ee- yay-ee yay-ee yo” The last song complete, the ever gracious Kate thanks us once again, wishes us a safe journey home and a good night. Finally tally, I cried three times, and had goosebumps most of the night. They filmed several performances for a DVD/BluRay release, I look forward to seeing it again.
As we depart the Apollo, and make our way to the tube station, I am, to use a British term, gob smacked by how audacious, how courageous, how phenomenal a show it had been. Her voice was in fantastic form, it was probably improving as she went along through the run. Like most fans who are honest, there were songs I had wished she sang. And while I enjoy A Sky of Honey immeasurably more now than I did before, it still is not overall one of my favorite pieces of her music. If I‘d had my druthers, Among Angels, while beautiful and in keeping with the winged theme, would have been swapped out for Under The Ivy, a b-side track from The Hounds Of Love album. I wished she had played something, anything, from The Dreaming. Ultimately, though, I really would have paid to hear her sing the phone book, had she chosen to. She still would have had to do it in that voice. Her voice. Kate’s voice.