Nick Bollinger reviews a 3-disc document of the first live shows in 35 years by art-pop original Kate Bush.
It’s hard to think of any artist whose return to the stage was ever met with greater anticipation than when, just over two years ago, Kate Bush launched a 22-night season at London’s Hammersmith Apollo – her first live performances in 35 years. Led Zeppelin? Elvis Presley? Their comebacks were no less exalted.
If, like me, you weren’t there, this is as close as you’ll ever get: a live triple-album, compiled from different nights across the month-long season, that more or less replicates the running order of the night. And you can hear that Madam Bush was not only delighted to be performing for an audience that, for one of the rare times in her long career, she could actually see; she was also in spectacularly good voice.
Fifty six years old at the time of these shows, she might no longer have the freakish soprano of ‘Wuthering Heights’ – a song she pointedly omitted from the set-list – but in a classic like ‘Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)’ you can hear a mature depth to her voice that is no less powerful or effective than anything she could do in her teens or twenties.
Like the concerts themselves, the album is divided into three parts. The first is as close as it comes to a greatest hits bracket. Each of the other sections is devoted to one of the conceptual suites that have been a feature of her work over the years.
The first comes from the same album as ‘Running Up That Hill’, Hounds Of Love, and originally occupied the entire second side. Titled 'The Ninth Wave' and written as a series of internal monologues of a woman drowning at sea, Bush added extra drama to this staging by incorporating actors, whose contributions are faithfully preserved in the recording. Missing the visual component, these passages sound a bit silly, like some old BBC radio play.
And it’s perhaps odd that, with the much-vaunted visual impact of the concerts, Bush has chosen to release only an audio recording. There’s no DVD with this, or even scheduled. In fact, the whole thing feels almost deliberately undersold. In fact it’s not even credited to Kate Bush. If you’re looking for it in stores, it’s released under the banner of The KT Fellowship: a nice acknowledgement of the musicians and crew that played as much a part in the production as Kate herself. The package includes a few photos and notes by Kate. But I can only assume this low-keyness is to preserve, in the memories of those who were there, the magic of the experience. And it’s true that, with even the best technology available, the small screen could only diminish its power.
But by releasing these relatively utilitarian sound recordings – which haven’t been touched up with overdubs or fixed-in-the-mix – they allow a listener to focus in on elements that might have been overlooked in the sensory overload of the occasion; the wonderfully layered rhythm arrangements, or the way these interlocked with the chorus of background singers.
I have yet to hear a single person dispute that these 2014 Hammersmith shows were a triumph. They were a reminder that, in an era in which the notion of ‘the pop star as creative artist’ was possessively held onto by male performers, Bush fearlessly presented herself as anyone’s visionary equal. That vision could occasionally be bombastic, as in some of her Fairlight synthesiser exploits. It could be a little nutty – dressing up as a lion, variously invoking King Arthur, Peter Pan and Wilhelm Reich, not to mention trilling about Heathcliff - but it has never diminished.
Songs featured: Lily, Running Up That Hill, Under Ice, Astronomer’s Call, Watchinhg You Without Me, Somewhere In Between, Cloudbusting.
Before The Dawn is available on Fish People Records.