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Kate Bush risks more than she stands to gain from her return to the stage. Money isn’t a motive, otherwise she’d be playing big arenas instead of the smaller, less lucrative Hammersmith Apollo. Nor does her reputation need boosting. So esteemed is she in Britain that she’s gone beyond the status of national treasure to something even more cherished. The French have Marianne, their symbol of republican liberty. The British have Kate, as decent as a cup of tea, as mysterious as Stonehenge.
Her reasons for mounting her first full-scale show in 35 years are unexplained. In 1979, when she brought her Tour of Life concert to the same London venue, she was a tyro of 20 with two precociously brilliant albums to her name, The Kick Inside and Lionheart. But despite plaudits she didn’t tour again. The death of a lighting engineer in an accident after a preview show may have contributed to her decision. Or perhaps it was perfectionism, a trait easier to indulge, or be tormented by, in the studio than on stage.
She announced plans to tour in 1991 but it never materialised. Then nothing – until this year’s surprise announcement of Before the Dawn, a residency of 22 shows at the Hammersmith Apollo, an unexpected feast following the long famine. But has it come too late?
The ovation as she entered was wild, the release of decades of pent-up anticipation. Meanwhile Bush, beaming broadly as she led her backing vocalists on stage in a line, on the verge of breaking into a conga, looked like a stranger to stage fright. “Where have you been?” she said to the audience with a twinkle. The drummer resisted the temptation to add a “ba-dum ching”.
She opened her set not with the bold mix of theatre and music that characterised the Tour of Life, but instead a conventionally delivered sequence of songs – Bush standing centre stage with her band arranged behind her, inventive lighting sparkling around them. Her 16-year-old son Bertie was among the backing singers.
The first song was “Lily” from 1993’s The Red Shoes, re-recorded by Bush on her 2011 album Director’s Cut, an upbeat gospel-pop number about a child seeking protection. Then came a mix of lesser-known numbers and much-loved hits, the likes of “Joanni” from 2005’s Aerial interspersed with “Hounds of Love” and “Running Up That Hill”.
It was familiar and disorienting at the same time. First there was the shock of seeing Bush on stage. Then there was the mental recalibration required to map the sylph-like singer of memory, her visual style and physical grace imprinted by some of the most famous music videos of the 1980s, on to the plainly black-clad 56-year-old singer on stage – no longer sylph-like, her barefoot movements curtailed to sways and the odd twirl.
Her voice has also grown less acrobatic. She once claimed she was an ordinary vocalist who trained herself to sing outside her range by writing songs in keys she couldn’t reach – a typically stubborn and self-willed act of ambition. But her vocals have lost that old suppleness. The raspy vigour with which she sang impassioned passages was a consolation but her high notes had a strident edge, and at times she sounded unusually tentative negotiating the fluid to-and-fro of her music.
The show changed gear with a peal of thunder and crack of lightning. A rewarding shift back to the musical theatre mode of the Tour of Life followed with a staging of “The Ninth Wave”, a sequence of songs about a shipwrecked woman from the Hounds of Love album.
Here was the darkest hour that Before the Dawn’s title implies, an unsettling series in which Bush was dragged below ice by sea monsters and a searchlight roamed the audience to the clatter of helicopter blades. The storyline – theatre director Adrian Noble helped stage it – was more coherent than on the recorded versions of the songs, updating Bush’s role from confused young woman to lost mother, ending with her pledging love to her family in the redemptive “The Morning Fog” while gesturing at Bertie.
Another song suite, “A Sky of Honey” from Aerial, followed after an interval. The presiding element shifted from sea to sky; bird imagery replaced the fish; an optimistic ambient-dance rhythm entered the music. Bush played the piano and sauntered the stage with a puppeteered tailor’s dummy while Bertie played an artist painting a skyscape.
There was a degree of indulgence in having him there, especially when he gamely sang a song, yet at a deeper level it made sense. Family has always been an obsession in Bush’s music, and now it’s parenthood – a vast subject that pop has hardly mined.
One of the concluding songs, “Cloudbusting” from Hounds of Love, underlined the theme, with Bush singing the role of a son touchingly serenading his fallen father. If growing up means accepting your parents’ flaws, then so too it must be accepted, as a condition of Bush’s return to the stage, that she is not the flawless performer of fantasy.