I had one of those “Once-in-a-lifetime” experiences last Friday night August 30, 2014 at the Hammersmith Apollo Theater in London. Here, I witnessed the third of 22 highly anticipated Kate Bush concerts she is putting on after 35 years absence from the stage. As the night’s proceedings and this week’s media frenzy proved, this long absence was a terrible shame!
Kate Bush played her first ever concert tour back in 1979, at the age of 21, after releasing her first two albums. She demonstrated right at the start that she was not just a prodigy on piano, and a writer and singer of the highest caliber, but also that she was a performance artist – turning what were generally short pop songs into spectacles complete with dance, costumes, props and what amounted to musical theater. Fortunately there is a video available that captures a portion of that historic show.
Unfortunately for fans all over the world, Kate did not tour again until this month. In the intervening years she released increasingly complex, rewarding work, much of it considered challenging “progressive rock” – work that was crying out for proper live performances – which it seemed would never arrive. Consider the music and lyrics on The Dreaming (1982) or The Hounds of Love (1985) for instance, or Aerial (2005) which hold within stories and musical adventure second to none. What we did get from Kate, particularly during the ‘80’s were stellar music videos – in their own right artistic marvels that also stoked the fire for a live experience. I for one always vowed to travel any distance if a show was eventually planned, and in fact did fly from San Francisco to London with my beloved two days ago full of expectations and hope for a show that might be staged with the kind of dramatics that would match her innovative music.
==spoiler alert – read on only if you are not attending the upcoming shows==
== also, find photos of the show itself elsewhere – we kept cameras off by request==
As performed Friday, Kate’s show was a spectacular success. It was divided into three parts with intermission and encore. She played most of 1985’s masterpiece The Hounds of Love, and 2005’s Aerial along with several other tracks, all found on her post 1985 releases. Part I of the concert began with a short set of six songs beginning with “Lily” from The Red Shoes (1993) continuing with the title track from The Hounds of Love and also doing the hit from that album, “Running Up That Hill”. She included “Joanni” from Aerial, and “The Top of the City” from The Red Shoes ending this first segment with “King of the Mountain” again from Aerial.
Kate was herself adorned in fine cloth, barefoot, and smiling ear to ear fronting her band of incredible musicians and backup singers, who were lined up in a row behind and beside her, with a modern concert light rigging above. This short first segment hewed to a rather standard concert format, Kate fronting her band, generally standing and swaying in place, warming up her still pliant, beautiful voice. It was almost surreal to see her in the role of lead singer after all these years – in this visually simple setting, she and the band sounding brilliant, but without much of anything else going on to accompany them.
For those expecting more theater, any fears that this would be the dominant format for this show were quickly alleviated while the sixth song faded away, as percussionist Mino Cinelu came to the fore spinning an object on a tether as the sounds of a storm brewed and he seemingly pushed the band’s risers backward to reveal a huge stage. A projection screen, full of stars, then came down to hide the stage. A video began, portraying a craft lost at sea and an astronomer trying to convince the coast guard there was a craft that needed rescue in the murky seas.
Thus marked the beginning of part II which consisted of “The Ninth Wave” –one of Kate’s most daring works, and which comprises the second half of The Hounds of Love. We were treated to that entire song cycle, presented with costumes, stage craft, props, a rigging above the audience resembling a helicopter, video, and a tremendous performance by musicians and vocalists alike. The idea was to present “real events on the screen in the form or pre-filmed footage” while “nightmares and delirium took place live on stage.” Costumes ranged from frogmen in diving gear to very effective skeletal fish that came in and out of the proceedings. During “Under Ice” a form of light on the stage floor depicted Kate’s character under the icey waters and after she realizes “It’s Me!” frogmen cut the ice and lift her out. During one particularly brilliant segment, the ocean’s surface was depicted by laser lighting, on which seemed to float a crooked living room in which two of the backup singers (one being Kate’s son Bertie) portrayed the family of the lost woman, Kate then appearing as if a ghost singing the segment “Watching You Without Me” to interrupt their television program.
Near the end of “Wave”, Kate was carried away by the crew, through the audience, there to finally escape her watery entrapment, and return to center stage with lights up, engaging the band and audience through a jubilant and touching version of “The Morning Fog” coda. The impact of the story ending in this celebration was intensely emotional, and the audience responded in kind, standing and cheering for this happy ending to “The Ninth Wave.”
During the intermission, the curtains were lit with pink light and the image of a single feather projected – in retrospect cluing us into the fact that Aerial would be featured next. In fact, after an intermission, Kate and band returned to perform the second half of Aerial called “A Sky of Honey.” Kate says in the booklet that the staging for this was harder to envision – the story being about the connection between light and birdsong, saying “It’s also about the observer. Us, observing nature. Us, being there.” Now the band was occupying stage left, and room was made for a grand piano, which Kate played to begin the “Prelude.” A huge Moorish door descended on stage right, through which an ingenious wooden puppet – an artist’s model, controlled behind by a black clad puppeteer, emerged. This boy puppet would be featured throughout this piece, as an evolving character, witness to the beauty and wonder described throughout the sections of the song cycle.
Also featured was Bertie as a painter – as Kate says “somehow responsible for the sky and the events that happen on stage – a kind of ‘Pan’ figure.” In this really amazing segment, Bertie “painted” a cloud-covered scene on a digital canvas in tandem with a huge backing screen drop showing a similarly clouded sunset. The brush triggered colors and changes to the image on the “canvas” as the larger backdrop slowly evolved as well. This made an absolutely beautiful centerpiece for the vocals and delicate sounds found within this work. The piece also included more time for Kate to work the piano, to sing in a call-response phase with birdsong, and eventually to don the feathers and wings of a bird and rise above the stage. Eventually the puppet became a wooden boy and found his way out of the scene back through those Moorish doors. All of this was imply stunning in its execution.
After a bow and departing the stage to endless applause, Kate returned solo to play an encore beginning with “Among Angels” from 50 Words for Snow (2011) and finishing with “Cloudbusting” from Hounds, which brought the audience to their feet to clap and sing along and end the show in a massive display of audience affection to match the spectacle we were privileged to witness.
The focus of the concert being the two major narrative pieces – “The Ninth Wave” and “The Sky of Honey” – one dark, the other light, made for more theater than just song, and was a truly inspired choice. Sure there were some attendees grousing that she did not play her early work including the “hits” such as her first, “Wuthering Heights” but as it turned out the alternative was far sweeter. In fact for this state-sider, the show focused on her most creative material, even if my favorite, “The Dreaming” did not figure into that this time.
Was it an “Once-in-a-lifetime” experience? I’d give that an unequivocal “yes” – it was beautiful, magical, and emotionally impactful to finally see this amazing artist perform her work live, with a level of production befitting her art, and with an audience of her adoring fans, this gem of Britain.
Guitar: David Rhodes (also Peter Gabriel’s guitarist, Random Hold – oh, and Blancmange!)
Guitar, Bouzouki, Charango: Frissi Karlsson (of Icelandic band Mezzoforte)
Bass: John Giblin (many fusion, prog collaborators, and bassist on almost all Kate’s albums)
Keyboards, Guitar, Vocals, Programming: Jon Carin (long time Pink Floyd collaborator who most recently played on “The Wall” tour)
Keyboards, Accordion, Uilleann Pipes: Kevin McAlea (many collaborations including Barclay James Harvest, he also played Kate’s first tour)
Percussion: Mino Cinelu (many works including Miles Davis and Weather Report)
Drums: Omar Hakim (also Weather Report, Sting, and Dire Straits work)
The chorus included Kate’s son Albert McIntosh (Bertie), who also sang lead and acted in several passages. Also in the chorus were Jo Servi, Bob Harms, Sandra Marvin, and Jacqui DuBois. And, there were a series of actors and stage hands that were part of the presentation – all adding to the fabulous, unforgettable evening.