Before I go on though, I must write a little re-cap, a little back story here... I have adored Kate Bush since she burst on to the music scene in the late 70s. As her albums over the years became more complex, more emotional, more experimental (for lack of a better word), I became even more of a fan. Her concerns resonated deeply with me. In a way, she created her own, vast mythology. And all of us, all of her fans were witness to this created world she shared. As many of you might know, she did one concert tour called "The Tour of Life"—modest by today’s standards, playing only Great Britain and a few places on The Continent—in 1979, and then nothing after that. She might have performed once in a while, perhaps showing up on stage to sing with Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) for Comic Relief, or maybe dueting with Peter Gabriel for a one-off show, but aside from that, not much live. Thankfully, she continued to record—sometimes with long stretches of time in between album releases, but I kept up with her output, even if it was, at times, sporadic.
But then, as I reported here at "Oh, By the Way" in March of this year, 2014, out of the blue she announced via her website that she was going to embark on a fifteen night residency at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. A promo shot of Kate, seen from overhead, floating in a life jacket with a “little light” (as seen above), recalled the same photos from her 1985 concept suite called “The Ninth Wave” and fans speculated that she would perform this miraculous, transcendent piece of music at the concert. Pre-sale interest was extremely high so she added another seven nights, bringing her residency to twenty two nights. When tickets actually went on sale, ALL TWENTY TWO NIGHTS SOLD OUT IN THIRTEEN MINUTES. I was up at 2:30 AM, California time, when the tickets went on sale at 9:30 AM London time. And I managed to secure two tickets for the end of the run, on September 27th. But I was so preoccupied and thrilled with actually getting the tickets that I failed to look forward: it of course meant that we now had to fly to London to SEE and HEAR the show! But what a dream come true, a once-in-a-lifetime event. My husband booked the flight and hotel (right near the Odeon) immediately. Fast forward to September 27th, 2014, a day I thought would never arrive...literally. I never thought I would see Kate perform in person.
Once at the venue, we entered and collected our tickets. In March, all ticket buyers were warned that the lead booker had to show photo ID along with the reference number for the tickets; the guy at the window DID check my passport photo to see that it was indeed me. And I was handed two glorious tickets that said KATE BUSH! Gulp. Back outside to get in line to be let in to the venue at 6:15. The wait was fine for me, I was still excited, but it was manageable. When the doors opened, we entered and I got right in line for merchandise, which was both 1) a hot, pushing, crush of humanity (a woman behind me was pushing against me with ALL of her weight) and 2) staggering for the amount of merchandise that was available. Four different types of tee shirts that featured references to all her works (1: "It's in the trees...it's coming" from "Hounds of Love," 2: a feather from "Aerial," 3: a picture of Kate from overhead in her life jacket for "The Ninth Wave" and 4: a tee with blackbird wings on the back which is a reference to "Waking The Witch" also from "Ninth Wave"), a Fish People sweatshirt (Fish People is the name of her own record label), posters, CDs (of course), a mug, a very expensive model of the Fish People fish skull, a "Cloudbusting" necklace, a cute little Before The Dawn Rescue Kit, and a program. I got one of each shirt, a program, and a Rescue Kit. But then we still had a bit of a wait in the lobby before the doors to the house opened.
Once the doors opened, we went in and found our row and seats which were amazing. The venue is very shallow and intimate, and our seats were only twenty rows back, SO close (even more amazing since the seats were randomly generated and assigned to me when I bought them on-line, so really, they could have been anywhere, even up in the balcony). We sat down, I saw the stage pre-set for the band, bathed in a blue and purple glow...and I couldn't catch my breath. I couldn't believe that I was sitting so close, with such a perfect, unobstructed view, about to see Kate Bush, something that, up until six months ago, was literally unimaginable. It is very hard to describe what Kate and the essence of her music mean to me. She has always sung about subjects that are a little off-beat but very close to my heart and personal belief system...songs full of magic and mysticism and spirituality, songs with allusions to literature or art or cinema, songs that are elemental and animistic, songs that have to do with psychological or metaphysical states, songs of raw emotion, songs of spectacular yearning, and often melancholy songs of what it means to be alive. The lyrics to these songs have been with me for many years, sifting down through my consciousness and soul, touching me, and reminding me of vital, primal elements of being. I have dreamt of Kate over the years, as part of my lifelong flying dreams (a motif that, for me, symbolizes ultimate spiritual and creative freedom): in many of them, it is understood that she taught me how to fly, and in some dreams, she is with me, instructing, guiding, encouraging. At first, this came from her song "The Big Sky," but then many years after this idea and its imagery took root in my subconsciousness, she released "Aerial" which, in a marvelous bit of synchronicity, is about birds and flying and the sky. (In every post about Kate, I add "Kate Bush is magic. Kate Bush taught me how to fly.") She, these songs and their meaning, and their deep personal significance for me have all taken on the sense of myth in my mind and soul—and with all this in mind, I was a bit overwhelmed that I would be seeing this myth for real, in this life. I would be seeing live, on stage, the one who taught me to fly. I would be in the same room with her, with this force, hearing her voice, those vibrations, for real. I started to tear up and couldn't stop for a little while. After about 10 or 15 minutes, I was able to calm down enough to stop crying—not sobbing mind you, but tears none the less coming down each cheek in a slow stream—and catch my breath. Which was good, because we still had a ways to go until our 7:45 curtain, and I don't think I would have survived that level of emotion.
Instead, I had time to ponder: I had actually been very good about not reading any reviews of the show since I wanted it to wash over me new, as it unfolded. I wanted it to HAPPEN to me. So I did not see any photos, read any reviews... and consequently, I had been left speculating and daydreaming about the songs she might perform. As I mentioned, I knew she was planning on performing "The Ninth Wave" in its entirety... and I knew that because of the promo photo for the concert. But the rest... ?
Slowly the venue filled up, and then it was time.
It was time.
Lights went out. Music started. And among an ominous swirl of dark sounds, we heard the spoken word intro to "Lily" from Kate's release "The Red Shoes." It was a shocking song to open with, about magic and spiritual protection—but now that I have had some time to think about it, it makes perfect sense that she would begin each evening’s performance with an incantation of spiritual protection. It is how any serious spiritual endeavor is undertaken. Lights exploded with the proper start of the song and Kate entered the stage from house right, stepping in time, rhythmically leading a train of her back-up singers behind her in a kind of slow, tribal march. She looked fantastic, smiling, in a high-waisted, long black coat with extremely long fringe...and she was barefoot! The band behind her was anchored in the center by a drum kit and percussionist with guitar, bass, keyboards, and back-up singers to either side. A semi-circle of rows of diamond-shaped lights arced over the stage and provided extra light and texture. I don't think I took a breath until the song was done.
Then, unbelievably, she launched into "Hounds of Love," one of her most iconic songs from her 1985 album of the same name. It was mind-boggling...I was actually seeing and hearing Kate Bush sing this song that I have loved for nearly thirty years. And the back-up singers did a great job with the signature doggie-"arf-arf-arf" sounds! Next up was a lovely, stirring song from "Aerial" about Joan of Arc called "Joanni," another interesting choice.
This was followed by a nice version of the moving song “Top Of The City” from “The Red Shoes,” and then, thankfully, and gloriously, “Running Up That Hill” from “Hounds of Love.” In general, it was a wonderful insight into, and a personal connection with Kate, to hear what she considered her good songs, the ones she wanted to present, the ones she wanted an audience to hear after thirty five years.
Then a low pulse began as the band started “King of the Mountain” from “Aerial,” a song in which Kate muses about the possibility of Elvis still being alive, “out there somewhere” while the wind blows through his empty, abandoned house. Live, the song really took on an energetic, rock and roll groove, and I couldn’t help but notice the back-up singers moving and grooving, each in their own way, when they were not standing up to the mike singing. There were two black women, a black man, a white man, and then, curiously, a very young looking guy, ginger, really grooving out. Young. Ginger. Then it hit me. This is Kate’s son Bertie—it just had to be. The back-up singers and Kate sang the “wooooo” of howling wind from the original recording but toward the end of the song, Kate started to sing, “There’s a storm coming,” warning her chorus, and us in the audience. Yes, a storm is coming… it had to be “The Ninth Wave.” Her percussionist came out from behind his kit; a stage-sized screen came down showing film of a satellite image of a storm while he whirled a bull roarer over his head, creating a creepy, low drone. Confetti cannons on either side of the stage shot out papers printed with the Tennyson quatrain that was on her “Ninth Wave” album, and suddenly the storm was upon us. (At this point, I really want to make a recommendation: if you are not familiar with Kate's staggering masterpiece "The Ninth Wave," pleeeeease do yourself a favor and visit my "Ninth Wave" page here to read about this magnificent conceptual piece and its complex, extensive, transcendent significance.)
What started out as a “gig,” a concert, albeit a KATE BUSH CONCERT, but a concert none the less, took a sudden, sharp turn. I adore how we were sort of tricked in a way, led in one direction, fooled into thinking that the evening was going to be a certain thing and a certain way, while a secret path emerged. A film segment started at this point: an amateur astronomer (played by “Downton Abbey” actor Kevin Doyle) intercepted a mayday call from a ship in trouble called The Celtic Deep. In the film, he has called the Coast Guard to report it. But unfortunately he did not get the coordinates of the ship before the transmission faded so there is not a lot of concrete information to give. He was quite distressed at the bureaucracy he was encountering with the Coast Guard and, nearly in tears, begged them to find the ship. His shaken state set us up emotionally for what was to come.
When the screen was raised, I gasped as a group of black-and-net-clad, fish-headed figures quickly and furtively fanned out from the stage, some hopping right down into the audience. Huge panels of blue silk fluttered like waves from their hands and we saw that the band was pushed back behind a set of what looked like the rotted ribs of a ship(wreck)’s hull, or perhaps the ribs of a giant fish skeleton as well. A film projection on a large oval upstage showed Kate floating in moonlit water wearing her life jacket with the “little light” (the iconic image both from the “Hounds of Love” release and the publicity for “Before The Dawn”). She sang “And Dream of Sheep” on film, shivering, whimpering, nearly crying, rocked by the motion of the water. At this point, I was rapt, teary, holding my breath. This was it. I was seeing “The Ninth Wave” performed by Kate. And the story hit me hard.
“Under Ice” was just as I have always imagined it but with a few, wonderful embellishments. The blue silk waves were drawn back to reveal a partially submerged, frozen living room consisting of a sofa, a floor lamp, and a television. The crew of The Celtic Deep came on in their life jackets while Kate entered from the opposite side, in a long black naval coat with gold braiding, a subtle alteration of her black fringed coat from the “gig.” During the ominous pulsing start of “Under Ice,” Kate stood in one spot, swung her legs out and moved side to side as if ice skating… a simple but lovely visual. At the moment when she realizes that it is herself under the ice (hearing her mournful “It’s ME!” live was goosebumpy!), the fish people came and took her away upstage while the crew brought on pick axes and a chainsaw to try to break through the ice to free her. When they finally opened up a hole in the ice, they reached under to drag Kate out.
At this point in “The Ninth Wave” we have the passage with samples of people from her past trying to wake her: a morning wake-up call at a hotel, her mother, her father, her lover, all in her memory trying to keep her awake and alive in the water. We hear the voice implore her to look at “that little light up there” and when she wants to know where, the television in the frozen set flickered to life for the briefest of seconds; a man staring starkly out at us, said “OVER HERE.” The image disappeared as quickly as it arrived. Wild strobe lights flashed and the evil priest from “Waking The Witch” entered. Kate knelt down before him to beg and plead but she was pronounced guilty and drowned. Back into the hole she went but for a brief second, we saw a huge pair of blackbird wings fly up from the hole, in reference to the line “Help this blackbird. There’s a stone around my leg.” And at the end of the recorded version of “Waking The Witch,” a helicopter appears, its blades chopping the air, with the warning to “get out of the waves, get out of the water.” I knew it was coming but I was not prepared for the form it would take in this live performance. An enormous piece of equipment on a rig came swooping down upon us, stirring up the air like a helicopter’s blades, shining a spot light onto the audience, searching for a missing person in the water. We heard the radio communication in this Coast Guard unit say that they had found all the crew of The Celtic Deep except for one last female, still missing. They were instructed to continue searching the area and the machine probed all around the main floor of the theater, hovering over certain spots in the house, shining its light all around, in a totally stunning, interactive special effect that broke the fourth wall.
Before moving into “Watching You Without Me,” the song that reduces me to tears every time I hear it, we watched a theatrical interlude. A living room set slid onto the stage but this was no ordinary living room. It was tilted on its side, slowly rocking back and forth, like a sinking ship and held the exact same configuration as the frozen living room from “Under Ice.” The sides were covered with fishing nets while more fish people perched menacingly on the roof of the little room. A young man, played indolently by Bertie, lounged on the sofa watching a television that slid side to side in the rocking room, while his dad who was trying to cook dinner came in and out of the room via a swinging door. A kind of corny, home-y scene ensued, father and son bantering back and forth until one of the times the father exited the room, Kate appeared as the door swung back. She stood in the room, unseen by her son and husband, who were now moving in slow motion: “You can’t hear me…you can’t feel me here in the room with you now…” She sang the lyrics that rip my heart apart. During the song, the phone rang and the husband answered. He was visibly crushed by the news we intuit he must have just heard: his wife is lost at sea. He hung up and sat down on the sofa next to his son in silent shock. And when Kate went to hug her son, who couldn’t see or hear her, he clearly felt her spiritual touch. He leapt to his feet, devastated at what he must have understood in a flash from that touch: his mom is gone. Of course I could not stop the tears throughout this piece. And I love that Kate chose to actually sing the otherworldly chant that closes the song in the recorded version: “wee-see / wee-ree-see…” but we did not hear the backward-sounding sections.
watch TV in the prelude to "Watching You Without Me" (Ken McKay/REX)
Then we came to the most stirring moment in “The Ninth Wave,” the forceful, Irish-tinged “Jig of Life” which starts with film of Kate on the oval overhead saying “I want to live.” During this song, the fish people brought on enormous white silk panels that they pulled from side to side of the stage, passing over and under each other, simulating huge and graceful swells and waves. When it came time for the spoken word poem in the song, the television from the frozen living room flickered into life once again, and the same man we had seen for a split second at the start of “Waking The Witch” recited those powerful, mystical words about water. Kate’s brother John Carder Bush reprised his role from the recorded version for this live performance. And we saw Kate, in film overhead, disappear down into the waves, beneath the water, heartbreakingly, for the last time.
For the magnificent “Hello Earth” a stunningly large prop, a huge ocean buoy, was brought onto the stage. The fish people swirled blue waving silk all around, mimicking churning waves, while the crew of The Celtic Deep lit flares and stood on the buoy, looking out yearningly, searching for their missing shipmate. Kate appeared out of the waves, and climbed on, unseen and unnoticed by the living. And at the end of the song, when the transcendent Georgian chorus was sung, the fish people came to lift Kate off of the buoy, and bear her aloft. She lay above them, still, arms crossed, as the fish people carried her away during an extended version of the Georgian chorus. In an agonizingly slow funereal procession, they crossed down through the audience, and out the door… not a dry eye or a closed mouth in the house, I guarantee you.
But on the oval screen, a close up of a hand reached down to meet Kate’s hand thrust up from the water…rescued! She entered back into the theater through the same door, striding through the audience while “The Morning Fog” took spark. I have been trying to pin point exactly why this moment might have been the most rewarding, the most draining, the most effective moment of this live version of “The Ninth Wave.” There was something different about this live version of "The Morning Fog." Faster than the recorded version? Slower? More energy? Both more solemn and more joyous (if that is possible)? I don’t know, but it was absolutely shimmering, full of some kind of life and texture that is not present on the recorded version. It was glowing, more uplifting, with a kind of…um… “swing” if that makes any sense. And it felt perfect… the correct, exhausted, cathartic release after the ordeal we just witnessed, and participated in. For the closing lines where she sings the people she loves, she motioned to Bertie and sang, “I’ll tell my son,” and to the band on “I’ll tell my brothers how much I love them.” It was a truly moving occasion. And it is so easy to see how much she loves her son and how proud she is of him...and it brought to my mind and my heart my own relationship with my mom whom I lost in 2002.
Kate then announced that they would take a break and to join them after the interval.
WHAT? There’s more? Can my heart take it?
Lights up, and I was caught, as I am sure everyone else in the audience was, stunned, dazed, with a slightly happy, unbelieving look on my face…we all looked like we were thinking incredulously, "WHAT JUST HAPPENED? Did we really see Kate Bush? And did we really see her perform 'The Ninth Wave'--for real?"
Our only hint for what was to come in act two was the stage curtain: crimson red with a feather in the upper right hand corner. Had to mean one thing. She was gonna do all of “A Sky of Honey” from 2005’s "Aerial" for the second act, right? (If you are unfamiliar with “Aerial” please read my review here, in which I speak about the significance and amazing journey of the second disc, “A Sky of Honey.”)
And the answer was yes. After the interval, that is exactly what she did.
In a lovely contrast to the dark, water/earth claustrophobia of “The Ninth Wave,” “A Sky of Honey” exists in a luminous world of air and fire. Birdsong, birds, the sky, the sun, the moon, the direction “up”—all of these key elements in this story are swirled around with references to Italy, Spain, and Impressionist painting. It is a compliment to what came before it and makes utter sense that Kate would present it as a balance in a kind of beautiful, elemental symmetry. She herself has said that not that much happens in "A Sky of Honey" (it is, at its core, an abstract, symbolic expression of time, cycles, the senses, and the joy possible in life) so she had to find ways to bring definable action to the stage. I think she achieved her goal. But it is decidedly difficult to describe what went on for this act since so many things were happening at once, overlapping and blurring together, much like the song cycle itself.
Second act: the stage is reconfigured. In front of a vast image of tree trunks in a forest (thanks to a staggeringly large LED wall that took up the entire back wall of the stage), a grand piano and band set-up were to the left (stage right). The other side of the stage was occupied by a soaring set of slim Moorish doors. When they opened, a puppet of an articulated artist’s mannequin entered through gently falling snow, puppeteered by a talented man dressed in a capello romano (a specific kind of round-domed, wide-brimmed hat worn by members of the church in Italy) and a black coat with knee breeches (the puppet was attached to the front of the operator much like many of the puppets in the stage version of "The Lion King."). But the doors slammed shut behind him, and despite the fact that he pounded and tried to get out, they would not open again… until the final moment of the show. Trapped.
Kate entered and sat at the piano while her band took their place. The “Prelude” started, as the studio version does, with Bertie’s recording when he was a child: “Mummy, Daddy… the day is full of birds. Sounds like they’re saying words.” As Kate sang the hypnotizing, beautiful “Prologue,” the artist's mannequin puppet explored the stage and the band, sweetly approaching each musician with hesitant curiosity, tentatively reaching out to touch a guitar or a drum, or to run his hand along the smooth top of Kate’s piano. Allusions to Italy and its special light (especially in Venice) are expressed in lines sung in Italian:
“Roma, Roma mia [My Rome]
Tesoro mio, bella [My beautiful treasure]
Pieno di sole, luce [Full of sun, light]
Cielo mio [My sky]
Balli cosi bene, bene [You dance so well]
And surprisingly, during this section, the church bells that open the title track from her album “The Sensual World” were mixed in (it was a thrill to hear and recognize them) while she sang some new, additional lyrics:
“What a lovely afternoon
Oh, can you hear the bird song?
The mistle thrush and wood pigeon
The chaffinch and the robin
The blackbird and the siskin
Like golden light dripping
And with golden bells
[“Sensual World” bells]
Ding dong, ding dong, ding dong, ding dong
Summer song, summer, won't be long
What a lovely afternoon”
Images of birds of all sort were shown in beautifully detailed slow motion on the grand screen at the rear of the stage. For “The Architect’s Dream,” The Painter was played by her son Bertie (dressed in the style of Gauguin or Van Gogh) and the doors were replaced by an enormous, framed “canvas” (an LED screen) on which he painted a moving sky. The puppet tried to come near, to see the canvas, to maybe touch it but The Painter yelled at him to “Piss off!” The puppet, frightened, ran over to Kate where she comforted him with a hug. This happened several times during the rest of the show—when Kate would encounter the puppet on stage, she would have a sweet, motherly interaction with it, hugging it with unconditional love.
As expected from the lyrics, the rain came for “The Painter’s Link,” melting the paint, turning the running colors of the painting into a sunset. Kate sang “Sunset” while the grand screen showed a stunning red glowing sun dipping down, down… “Every sleepy light must say goodbye to the day before it dies.” *choke…sob* When the song turned to a flamenco, the guitarist/ vocalist joined Kate downstage for a rousing, Latin-inspired moment. And I must mention that throughout the entirety of act two, her chorus and actors wandered around in Italian Commedia dell’Arte masks, functioned as assistants to The Painter, and carried around gigantic paper airplanes.
Then during the brief, enigmatic “Aerial Tal,” Kate chirped and cooed, cocking her head side to side like a bird while the silhouette of a human figure with a wing for an arm was seen projected from behind the painting, a suggestion of a transformation to come. Night fell during “Somewhere In Between” and then something quite unexpected happened. Bertie came out alone and sang a new song in the cycle called “Tawny Moon.” At this point, The Painter was trying to capture the elusiveness of the moon and he sang, “Oh man, I’m painting the moon tonight…I’ve got to get it just right, I’ve got blisters on my hands.” During the song, he mimed hoisting the moon up into the sky with an invisible rope while an impressively detailed blood moon rose on the grand screen. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we present to you tonight… the moon!” Another simple but lovely effect.
This gave way to “Nocturn,” full of otherworldly purple and blue lights and lasers. She cleverly worked into the tempo and tune here words from "Waking The Witch:" "Help this blackbird/ There's a stone around my leg," thus tying the two different song cycles together. Two pairs of archers entered and took up positions flanking the stage. They shot arrows that, on the grand screen, turned into birds cutting through the sky. But a disturbing splash of red blood on the screen was followed by the puppet downstage with the body of a white seagull on the ground. He tore at it in gestures that I still can’t decipher. Did he kill it? Was it shot down by one of the arrows? Was he feeling grief for the loss of life and pounding on it with sorrow, trying to bring it back to life? Or was he dipping his head down…eating it? Loving and innocent? Feral and hungry? It was an unsettling image no matter what.
Now was the time for the finale, for “Aerial” itself. Assistants approached Kate with a single, large blackbird wing and helped her put it on her right arm. It transformed her and she began dancing and flapping her new wing while she sang her obsessive need to be “up, up, high on the roof.” I did not notice when they donned them, but the entire band were now sporting bird masks and Kate did a chilling, aggressive dance with her guitarist while singing, chanting, shrieking some new lines about her "beautiful wings." The galloping, throbbing, pounding nature of this song took over as all characters were on stage at once. It all happened so fast. The large Moorish doors were back, the forest returned to the grand screen, and actual tree trunks rammed down onto the stage, one of them through the piano. The music grew and built. Kate dipped behind the doors while the puppet, terrified, ran on stage to the doors, pounding on them, wanting to be let out, and—wait, OH MY GOD, the puppet was no longer tethered to the puppeteer, it was running free, come to life! Suddenly, the doors opened with great force as Kate, now armed with two massive black wings, broke away from gravity and actually flew out toward us, the audience. Flew. Got that?
Crescendo. BOOM. Black out. My heart stopped… and considering my afore-confessed-to flying dreams in which Kate taught me how to fly, this was personally mind-boggling. And really made me feel the texture of a dream while awake. Wow…
And that was “A Sky of Honey.”
But we had more treats in store: an encore of “Among Angels” from her last release in 2011, “50 Words For Snow” and the crowd-pleasing “Cloudbusting” in which she invited all to sing along on the “ay-ee yay-ee yay-ee yay-oooooh” chorus at the end of the song. I howled my heart out, cherishing the moment in my life when I got to sing with Kate Bush! What a stupendous, absolutely magical night, a night of music, theater, special effects, lighting effects, dancing, props, sets, costumes, puppets...and Kate.
We stumbled back to the hotel where I dreamt of Kate and the show and flying…
So now the good news, not only for those not able to get to London to see “Before The Dawn” but for those of us who saw it and want to keep the images fresh in our minds, there is a DVD of the show on the way. Filmed on the September 16th and 17th performances, word is that it could be a Christmas release this year! Fingers crossed.
And in case you are wondering, here are some shots of some of my Kate merchandise:
Kate Bush is magic. Kate Bush taught me how to fly.