You would have to go back to Bob Dylan’s 1978 return to the London stage to find a more eagerly awaited residency than Kate Bush’s 22 shows.
Hammersmith, and Oxford’s New Theatre, witnessed her groundbreaking, and only tour, 35 years ago, when she set new standards for rock shows incorporating mime, dance and theatre. Now happily settled near Oxford, having moved to the county from Theale, the desire to make contact with an audience apparently struck her early in 2013. And over 18 months, helped by her teenage son Bertie, she has quietly been putting together a show that may well have people talking for the next three decades.
Not so much a rock gig, it should be classed as a piece of theatre, confirmed by the close involvement of Adrian Noble, former artistic director of the RSC. And for all those advance clips showing a young Kate in leotards, belting out Wuthering Heights and Wow, the 22 shows of Before The Dawn (as the shows have been called) was never going to be a greatest hits affair. This is a woman endearingly unconcerned with musical fashion.
For her the challenge has been to put before a live audience two of her most complex song suites and narrative pieces: Ninth Wave, which took up half of the Hounds of Love Album, and Sky of Honey, making up the second Aerial CD. When she led her five backing singers on-stage on Friday, the roof nearly came off the old theatre, with the response only occasionally dropping to merely rapturous.
Coolly, kicking off with Lily, having already kicked off her shoes, it starts as an orthodox rock show, the beaming singer belting out songs in that instantly recognisable voice. For all the rescue helicopters, billowing seas and dancing fish skeletons that follow, her pitch-perfect singing, largely unchanged, powerful and still sensuous, provides the evening’s greatest delight.
Hounds of Love and King of the Mountain showed what a great band she now fronts, but there wasn’t going to be much “stripped down” about the rest of the evening.
Kate Bush in the Randolph Hotel in April 1979. Picture by Antony Moore
Her son Bertie, a schoolboy at an Oxford independent school, it seems was pivotal in encouraging her return to the stage. As a fifth-former he has performed at the O2 Academy, and he is in the line of back-up singers, and given a prominent role as the artist in the Sky of Honey suite of songs. Ninth Wave, about a girl lost at sea, slipping in and out of unconsciousness as she waits to die, lends itself brilliantly to dramatic staging, with filmed footage and delirious dancing, with flashback scenes and nightmares. The meditation on light and birdsong that is Sky of Honey provides far greater challenges, with a storyline about a painter introduced. You might suppose birdsong and slowness of action might have stirred some restlessness. But metaphysical poetry and the wooden puppet were not beyond this audience, even those secretly, vainly, hoping to hear Moments of Pleasure and This Woman’s Work.
But we were rewarded with her alone at the piano to perform a sumptuous Among Angels from her Snow album, before closing with a joyful Cloudbusting. Kate Bush doesn’t dance much any more or sing Babooshka, but Before The Dawn perhaps ranks as perhaps the boldest and well judged move of her career.