Ray manged to get front row seats for Kate Bush – here’s his reflections……
There is a very real and reverential love of Kate Bush from her audience. Not for her the pages of Hello and Heat magazines or the endless round of interviews to promote her work. In an age where we all know what some celebrities are doing on an almost hourly basis, Kate Bush has no interest in playing the media game, unfairly earning her the tag of a recluse. “I let my work speak for itself, it is far more interesting than I could ever be”, she said in 1983.
At the time of writing, she has 8 albums in the Top 40 album charts, a feat only equalled by Elvis and The Beatles. The other 3 albums are in the top 50. No other artist, living or dead, has seen their entire recorded output in the charts at the same time.
After 35 years of confining herself to the studio, the announcement that Kate Bush would return to the stage and perform a series of 22 concerts in London was a dream come true for this die-hard fan. Her one and only tour in 1979 was a dizzying marriage of mime, magic, dance, special effects, performance and music where she set a new standard of what a live musical event should be. Headset mics and back-projection – both now standard fare for the arena circuit – were used for the first time on that tour. After having a 35 year break from performing, what could we expect from someone who has always delivered the unexpected? There has been no leaked information about what to expect at these concerts, no pictures of the set or costumes, no setlist, nothing.
It is an understatement to say that there is a very real air of anticipation in the theatre. The lights dim and the show opens with a funked up version of Lily from The Red Shoes with its slow burning funk of deliberate percussion, and then we see Kate herself, being led on stage by five backing singers in a slow processional march. The roar from the crowd as they leap to their feet is deafening. It is the first of countless standing ovations. Head to toe in black like the rest of her band, she smiles a genuine smile as she surveys the crowd before her. It is hard to decide who is more pleased to see who, and when she opens her mouth to sing, it is like meeting a very dear old friend again.
The band (7 musicians and 5 backing vocalists including her son Bertie) are tight, musical and incredibly well rehearsed. Though we do not know it yet, the backing singers will act, dance, mime, dress as Elizabethan court jesters and play an integral part in what follows.
For the first 6 songs, we are treated to a traditional rock show – she stands centre stage with a hand-held mic with the band lined up behind her. She sings Top Of The City, The Hounds of Love, Joanni and a sublime version of Running Up That Hill. Here, the drums sound more urgent, her voice now an impossibly matured growl. Gone are the trills and vocal gymnastics of 35 years ago, and instead in turns she has a voice of power, tenderness and sensuality.
At the end of King Of The Mountain though, everything changes. There is an explosion and we are showered with confetti that quotes Tennyson’s poem ‘The Coming Of Arthur’. A screen fills the front of the stage and we see a film of an amateur astronomer in conversation with the coastguard. He is agitated, having received a phone call that a ship is sinking and there may be people in the water. This is not the sort of thing that happens at a Kylie Minogue concert. The film ends, the screen drops and what happens next is the most surreal, brilliant, inventive and emotionally arresting experience I have ever seen at a music gig. Kate performs The Ninth
Wave, the set of seven songs from The Hounds Of Love that tells the story of a woman trapped under the ice in the North Sea after a shipping accident. As she floats in the water and slips in and out of consciousness, she has an out of body experience, and is finally hauled to safety into a helicopter by the coastguard. She gives thanks for her life and all those she loves having had such a close call with death.
The band are now at the very rear of the stage and we are in what could be the ribs of a whale, or it could be the remains of the hull of a ship. This leaves a vast space in front for performance.
Over the next hour, we see a film of her floating in the sea wearing a lifejacket singing live projected high above the stage, we see her having an out-of-body experience and recognising herself trapped under the stage from which she is subsequently cut free with chainsaws, we see her clinging to a life buoy in a sea of silken waves, pleading with a priests for salvation, we experience a search & rescue helicopter in the theatre that billows smoke as it scans the audience for survivors, we see a surreal sketch featuring her husband and son in an equally surreal living room that bobs on the waves as they receive the phonecall she is lost at sea (made all the more powerful when Kate suddenly appears in the room, another moment the audience gasped in surprise), then the lounge they are in sinks into the sea. The piece finishes with her lifeless body carried off the stage and over the heads of the audience by ocean creatures and through the auditorium. It is not only absorbing but incredibly moving. She reappears to thunderous applause and all the band members and supporting actors on stage line up to face the audience and they play the final song of the suite, ‘The Morning Fog’. It feels like a bunch of old friends who love each other dearly singing the night away in the pub. When she reaches the line ‘Do you know what? / I love you better now’, the most massive cheer I have ever heard erupts and when I look down my row of seats I realise everybody is in tears, myself included.
The song ends to another standing ovation.
Here at the end of the first act, with great humility she thanked the crowd for such a great reception, and she looks utterly happy to be on stage back in front of her audience. If there were nerves caused by such a long absence from live performing, she hid them well. She looked to be having an absolute ball.
After the spectacle of the first act, in contrast the second act was a more sedate affair with A Sea Of Honey from Aerial performed in its entirety. This 10 song suite of songs loosely details a full day spent in the countryside listening to birdsong, watching a painter paint a picture of the scenery, going through the sunset and emerging into the dawn of a new day. It also includes a new song sung by Bertie her son (‘Tawny Moon’), someone who gets full credit for the shows ever happening in the first place.
Some of the songs have a tranquil, almost dream-like quality to them, typified by some sections where everyone on stage walks in incredibly slow motion, almost as if time itself is being stretched.
At times Bertie plays the part of a painter in front of a massive canvas while behind Kate there are enormous rear-of-stage projections of birds in flight and stunning sunsets. A puppeteer appears on stage with an almost full size human artists model which he manipulates through the set. It has a childlike quality and is totally believable as another person on stage. At one point Kate sings over a blackbirds song in perfect unison. On paper, this sounds like a crazy idea, but in the context of the show, it is another jaw dropping moment. The band, the backing singers and half a dozen extra performers all taking on various roles in costume, acting, dancing and singing.
At the crescendo of the final song Aerial, we see the wooden puppet come to life and run around the stage having escaped from its puppeteer, the trees that the artist painted earlier are made real and come crashing down from the roof of the theatre right through the grand piano she plays, it snows on stage, the band turn into birds and feathers fall from the rafters and all of this building confusion and noise comes to a single point where at the end of the song and, propelled to the edge of the stage by the rest of her band, Kate runs forwards and we realise she has turned into the blackbird she mimicked earlier on. She spreads her immense blackbird wings and flies off the stage and hovers twenty feet above it in mid-air before the lights go out. It is another amazing moment in a night of amazing moments, and 3,400 people collectively gasp in astonishment as she defies gravity.
Coming back for an encore and trying to follow such a spectacle was never going to be easy, but follow it she does, and in the most beautiful way. She walks on stage to another standing ovation, this time alone. For the first time that evening, and under a single spotlight, she accompanies herself on the piano as she sings Among Angels from Fifty Words For Snow, a bluesy torch song about needing support in a time of crisis and not realising that the support you crave is somehow all about you. After an absence from the stage for all this time, the line ‘There’s someone who’s loved you forever / but you don’t know it’ has a particular poignancy. It is a line that anyone in the audience could have sung to her. Now heard without the rest of her band, her voice can be heard to be a true thing of beauty, and the only sound apart from her and the piano, is of 3,400 people holding their breath, their eyes full of tears.
It is an utterly sublime moment, and it is beautiful beyond compare.
The band come on for a final song, a rousing singalong version of Cloudbusting. Everybody is smiling and laughing – the audience, the band, Kate and even the security guards in the venue cannot quite believe what is happening, there is nothing but love and joy in the room.
All too soon the show is over and we are walking out through the snow, the confetti and the feathers and pushed back into the harsh reality of West London traffic system, every last one of us stunned by the preceding three hours.
Those of us expecting a straight performance of the greatest hits probably went home disappointed, but then again, Kate Bush has never done we expect her to. No other artist writes songs from the point of view of an unborn foetus, or an aboriginal getting knocked down by careless drivers or a woman mourning her dead soldier son. There were no songs from the first four albums or The Sensual World, so no Wuthering Heights or Babooshka….but nobody went home disappointed. They went home stunned and amazed and running out of superlatives to describe an event that employed music, mime, performance, creative set design, puppetry, film, lighting, drama and dance with all of those elements displaying flair, imagination and creativity. There were no video walls just for the sake of them, nor pointlessly extravagant costumes or needless special effects. Everything on stage was there for a reason, to aid the telling of the story, and it showed a remarkable dedication and clarity.
A personal note posted on her website before the gigs asked people not to use cameras or take photos as it would help both performers and audience share in the experience, and such is the respect that people have, there was not a single camera or phone raised towards the stage.
Once again, and just as she did 35 years ago, she has reset the bar incredibly high. Maybe these concerts will once again reshape the future of live performance for those brave enough to take risks and fully realise an artistic vision….but then you realise that there aren’t that many artists these days that have an artistic vision, that can draw together so many different artforms into a single cohesive experience. While she took a massive risk in the scale and scope of these shows, it was a risk that paid off handsomely.
After 35 years of waiting, I’d all but given up on the idea of seeing her playing live again, so it was a concert I never thought I’d see.
It was an event I waited 12,294 days for, and it was worth the wait.
If music has a goddess, it is Kate Bush.