HUGE SPOILERS. I mean, seriously, if you are going to the gigs and don’t want to know anything about it, do not go any further with slightly rabid article. Really. I’m basically giving everything away here so read it at your own peril!
KATE BUSH – BEFORE THE DAWN
I don’t want to get all elitist, but when a woman was interviewed on leaving “Before The Dawn”, The name of Kate Bush’s 22 night residency at the Hammersmith Apollo, and she complained that Kate Bush had ‘gone all experimental’ and was ‘too conceptual’ and ‘didn’t do any of the hits’, I couldn’t help but think that :
a) she had compeletly missed the point of Kate Bush, and
b) she probably only has one Kate Bush album, that being the singles collection “The Whole Story”.
Kate Bush fans know that ‘conceptual’ and ‘experimental’ are two words that pretty much define Kate Bush. I cannot beleive that this woman, who claimed she was a fan, had ever posessed a copy of “The Hounds of Love” with it’s breathtaking conceptual song-cycle “The Ninth Wave” making up the <wipes tear from eye> B-side.
But the gig.
Oh, that gig.
It wasn’t perfect, unfortunately, but that was nothing to do with the music, rather a few problems with the ambitious staging. In the first half of the show, we were treated to excellently performed but relatively standard staging of:
‘Lily’, sounding so much better for being live and based around the reworked “Directors Cut” version.
‘The Hounds of Love’ accentuated a vocal part that in 30 years I’d never heard before. Playing it post-gig has made the track feel like something entirely new
‘Joanni’ is not a song that I listen to often. I found it’s parent album, Ariel, to be a little bland at the time of release, if I’m honest. It took me a good decade to get to grips with it as an album. It grew on me quite a bit though and I have to admit that it works an awful lot better as a live track than a studio track.
‘Running Up That Hill’ – A stone-cold classic and perfectly performed.
Then we came to ‘Top of the City’. Now, I’ve never had a problem with this track, although among fandom, ‘The Red Shoes’ as an album, and it’s component songs, is seen as a bit lacking. Presented as it was live, I hope peoples minds are changed. Quite apart from the beautiful and passionate vocal, the music has be rearranged with a lovely brushed snare shuffle underpinning it. Much better than the 90’s bombast drum experience from the original album, giving it a wonderfully smoky and louche feeling.
This segment ended with “King of The Mountain” complete with Elvis impersonation and with the final lyric leading onto the highlight of the whole evening… well. Sort of.
The final lyric is “The wind it blows, the wind it blows, through the house . . .”. The wind effects became stronger and stronger, more and more stormy, the curtains started to fall and one of the band walks to the front of the stage with a bull-roarer, adding to the noise and drama, highlighted against strobe spot-lights, figuratively whipping up a storm. Those of us versed in theatre noticed that there was a problem. A screen was coming down at the back, but the lighting rig wasn’t going up. A second screen came down in front of the entire band and the storm that was being whipped up showed on screen a a satellite image of a hurricane. Within the eye of the hurricane, as a filmed insert – an astronomer/ meteorologist appeared. He had heard a radio distress signal and was reporting it to the Coastguard, getting more frustrated when they refused to believe him.
And the insert ended . . . the audience already knew where this was supposed to go. Everyone was waiting for the delicate “Little light . . . shining” that heralds the begininning of “The Ninth Wave” and, lets be honest, this was what 99% of the people there had come to see.
Instead, we got “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experienceing technical difficulties, please remain in your seats.”
No one knew whether this was part fo the performance and there were laughs, joyous clapping and then…shuffling, bewilderment and then,
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing technical difficulties and an need to make an unscheduled ten minute interval. Please be back in your seats at 8:40.”
Gutted. I’d long been convinced that this whole gig thing had been some sort of elaborate ruse to annoy me. Turning up and finding nothing happening would have been bad enough but to get a quarter of the way through the gig to have it threatened by technical difficulties was somehow infinitely more cruel.
Thirty minutes pass and we are all instructed to go back to our seats (we never actually left ours, to upset to move, you see). Five minutes later . . . Kate appears projected onto a gigantic screen, wearing a life jacket, floating in the sea (Well, a tank at Elstree) and the words “Little light . . . shining . . . “ spill forth. The crowd goes absolutely batshit crazy.
The Ninth Wave, despite two further minor technical difficulties, was wonderful. Beautifully staged, it evoked the hallucinatory story af a woman lost at sea, talking to her past and future selves, wonderfully. At times the stage appeared to be a raging sea, spilling into the audience and threatening to drown the crowd, Skeletal fish creatures stalked the sea bed carrying the unconscious Bush to her watery fate, the stage turning into a gigantic frozen pond with Kate being cut from beneath the ice with axes and chainsaws (during ‘Under Ice” unsurprisingly), helicopters flying over the audience, searchlights sweeping the auditorium. Mavellous. By the time the buoy arrives for Kate to cling to, you’ve been put through the wringer emotionally and want to be clinging on to it, yourself.
Now. Despite being wonderful and an absolute triumph of theatre. I did have a couple of problems with it. I’m still not sure that this is whether it’s because I’ve lived with this music for thirty years, know it back to front and don’t take kindly to changes in it, or whether the changes were a bit iffy. I’d like to think that my critical faculties are acute enough for me to be at least reasonably objective, but I can’t be 100% certain.
On Waking the Witch the menace in the heavily treated voice of the witch-finder on the album was lost by having someone simply shout instead. However, when he screams “What say you good people?” and 3000 people scream back “GUILTY! GUILTY! GUILTY!”, that’s pretty frightening right there! Bristles on the back of the neck time!
The domestic scene between the woman’s son and husband went on far too long, was cliche ridden and, frankly badly acted. Sorry Bertie, as much as I applaud you and forever thank you for getting your mum back on stage, I wasn’t keen on the price we paid in terms of that scene. It could have been shorter, pithier and would have been far more affecting because of it. I do accept that a scene of some sort was necessary to bridge the two songs in a theatre context, though. The skewed set and the floating TV screen lighting the scene was rather marvellous though and Kate’s unexpected appearance was very well done. The resultant “Watching You Without Me” was simply beautiful.
Hello Earth which is – as I told my partner weeks before the gig – the song where I am most likely to completely lose it and be wracked with sobs – suffered from the entire rig shutting off for about 2 seconds. We lost all sound and light except for one spot pointing an a random member of the crowd. But it sprang back on again and everything continued. It’s just that the sound no longer matched the video being about 2 sesoncds out.
But you know what? It just didn’t bloody matter. This was the first time there had been any technical problems during the residency, and while I can’t say I feel privileged to have witnessed them, the crowd were immensely forgiving and understood that sometimes, these things just happen. And that was fine and good. It was a superb set and spoke of her professionalism that the show did indeed go on. We got our money’s worth and frankly, if I’d left at the end of Act One, I would still have thought it had been worth the money.
As “The Morning Fog” cleared, cheers and hysteria rocked the Apollo. Kate looked genuinely overwhelmed by the response and when she tried to apologise for the technical problems, she was simply drowned out with yet more cheers and applause. The show really was that good!
Twenty minutes of cool down time. Then Part Two.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m not the greatest fan of Aerial – I do like it an awful lot and a ‘bad’ Kate Bush album is still light years ahead of most ‘good’ artists – so this section didn’t really hold the same kind of rabid appeal for me as The Ninth Wave. I was enormously surprised at how well it translated though. Had just been a case of presenting the songs as on the album, I would have tired of it quite quickly, but there was a prologue and coda added that turned what was a scene of domestic tranquility, where a young family climb a hill, watch the sun go down and reach home as the sun is rising again into something incredibly sinister and more of a meditation about the loss of innocence.
Where Bertie had figured heavily as the innocent on the album – He was probably only two or three years old when Aerial came out) – having hit puberty, he had to be replaced by something as seemingly innocent as he was then. So, in place of Bertie, and arriving through colossal, nightmarish, moorish doors, is a puppet of an artists wooden model. The puppet, inquisitive and childlike, investigates every aspect of the stage, set and musicians, until eventually being told to piss off by Bertie. Which jarred a little, actually, but we’ll let that go . . .
Bertie has taken the part of “The Painter” from the now disgraced Rolf Harris who appeared on the original album, which is as much as I’m going to say about that, and for the most part does a good job. That is, until the solo song arrives, an addition to the album and glaringly out of place here. “Tawny Moon” is not a good song and needs a more experienced and powerful voice to make it work. At 16, Bertie simply hasn’t got that yet; the Painters link and his parts elsewhere all deserve praise and I’m happy to give it.
However, the one track on Aerial I loved instantly is ‘Aerial Tal’. I still think it is a work of genius. There is nothing, but nothing that will ever convince me that Kate Bush having a sing-off against blackbirds is not worth hearing because It bloody is.
I keep thinking about the disgruntled woman I mentioned earlier. How could she not know, after something as insane as ‘Aerial Tal’, that Kate had ‘gone conceptual’, especially as it was in the middle of a conceptual piece taking place over an entire album. For an artist that was brought up on Prog and folk, whose influences are there to be seen and whose entry into the music business was sponsored by Dave Gilmour, how could the proggy/conceptual qualities of her music and outlook have been missed by this woman? Utterly baffling. And regardless of how sniffy people might get about the term, this is Prog. No two ways about it. This is an artistic form that progresses how we perceive music. That’s PROG. You can dress it up as experimental pop if you like, but the is prog in style and presentation. No question. Embrace that!
A Sky of Honey, as the second act is called suffers, perhaps, from not having a stronger focus; a stronger narrative. Where it wins out though, is the utter beauty of the staging. Everything looks as if it’s been painted, as The Painters Link might suggest, everything looks as if it coming directly from canvas; the colours and imagery are pure Van Gogh and the slow motions birds are stunning to watch. More hypnotic than hallucinatory, the kinetic painting changing as the mood of the songs change.
But that ending? Talk about grim! The Pinocchio aspect of the puppet is played up, innocence is lost and escape is impossible. It’s a frightening end – with a moment of almost shocking horror – to what had previously been a ‘pastoral’ piece. I’m not complaining, though. It gave the work the punch that it desperately needed to suceed. It’s extraordinary watching a work of art getting away from you and going on a violent rampage.
Where as the album seemed to be about revelling in the joy of Bertie’s birth. This presentation, co-created and staged by Bertie, seems to be much more about traversing puberty and the horrors that brings. The puppet has become a metaphor for the passing of infancy into a harsher world; the puppet runs for comfort in Kates arms a number of times which also makes you wonder whether this is an attempt to ‘pass the baton’ while mourning the loss of the child Bertie.
Either way, it’s a performance that would keep both Freud and Jung arguing for months.
And then with a full on attack by the forest, it’s over.
Bows are taken. After minutes of baying, weeping and ecstatic moaning but the audience, Ms Bush walks back on stage to rapturous applause. She again attempts to apologise for the technical faults, and again is drowned out by a torrents of applause and screaming, so she sits behind her piano and performs “Among Angels” from 50 Words for Snow. Breathtaking.
As the applause fades, she introduces her returning band and one of the percussionists takes to a snare and begins banging a military beat and with the phrase:
“I still dream, of Organon . . .”
the Apollo experiences a full on eruption! It’s the only chance we’ve had to have a singalong and a bit of a dance and by god, we make the most of it!
And then it’s all over.
I’m really pleased that this wasn’t a ‘Greatest Hits’ set, seeing someone’s imagination on stage in such a fascinating way is far more entertaining than simply ‘hitting the marks’. This was never about making money, as a hits package would suggest, this was about artistic integrity.
I feel particularly sorry for “The Dreaming” though, poor neglected work that it is. Legendarily, The Dreaming is what is known as her “I‘ve gone mad” album and where her first tour consisted of songs from her first three albums, and this one featured songs from albums five to eleven, poor old number four didn’t get a look in on either tour.
Sad with that being my favourite album, and the discerning Kate Bush fan’s choice, but y’know, if it meant compromising the show we got, it was a noble sacrifice. It might have come across, at times, as “Kate Bush: The Musical”, but I’m not sure that that is any real criticism. It put a lot of musical theatre to shame, actually. It might have been beset with technical problems – the first night these problems have happened apparently – and it may not have been perfect, but it was dizzying, exhuberent, imaginative, extraordinary, mental and worked on pretty much every level.
I’ve never seen a show quite like it. Sure there have been ‘big’ shows by the likes of U2, Muse et. al., but somehow this seemed much more honest; a genuine attempt at something unique, rather than a cynical marketing ploy. Maybe that was because of it being held in a more intimate setting than a huge stadium? Maybe because the music is so visual anyway? Either way it was utterly wonderful.
But I’m baised.
I would say that.
I’m a fan.
Too bloody right I am!
Hounds of Love*
Running Up That Hill*
Top of the City
King of the Mountain
The Ninth Wave
And Dream of Sheep*
Waking the Witch
Watching You Without Me*
Jig of Life
The Morning Fog
A Sky of Honey
An Architect’s Dream
The Painter’s Link
Somewhere in Between
(The asterisked titles are one where I openly wept, by the way)