Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Kate Bush: Before the Dawn

At long last the bf's review of 'Before the Dawn'. (I had asked him to write this in the deep dark  midst of my depression and reading it didn't really help, so I filed it away for later use! So I suppose do this finally is a sign that I'm getting better.)

When the news broke that Kate Bush was going to perform a series of shows it was inevitable that it would create a fuss. It’s been over 35 years since she last toured and those shows have achieved almost legendary status. Kate’s fans had long since accepted that she would never perform a substantial show again and any statement she made about not ruling it out was just a polite way of avoiding questions about why she stopped. So, her Hammersmith residency was a big deal.

My own concert-going experience is limited to Randy Crawford (once), Nanci Griffith (twice) and some Australian band people from work dragged me to, and the last of them was over twenty years ago. Only Kate could get me to do it again.

I got there about half an hour before the doors opened. There were about a hundred people in the queue ahead of me. I thought I’d best be early because of the anti-tout security checks: you needed picture ID to match the name of the booker on the ticket. As it was, ID was checked as people joined the queue so there was no delay. When the doors opened tickets were scanned electronically so my beautiful ticket remained intact. The whole process was so well organised that I was able to buy souvenirs, and a drink, and still get a seat in the foyer where I could sit and watch the audience gather. It reminded me of a warm evening in Soho: some hipsters, some groups out for a good time, and an awful lot of single gentlemen of a certain age. Me included.

The performance began promptly at 7.45 – one would expect perfect manners from Kate – to the opening narration of Lily, and Kate came onstage to the inevitable massive roar of approval. She looked happy to be there, and we were certainly happy to see her. Not for the last time that evening I shed a tear – I shall never mock those teenage girls in archive footage of Beatlemania again. Thanks to this excess of emotion, I can’t swear that the following account is accurate in every respect. Or that it wasn’t all just a fevered dream.

This section of the evening was a fairly standard pop concert: band, backing singers and a bit of a light show. After ‘Lily’ she performed ‘Hounds of Love’, ‘Joanni’, ‘Top of the City’, ‘Running Up that Hill’ and ‘King of the Mountain’. Her voice sounded amazing. Overall the acoustics of the band sounded a little harsh to my ears but I only have the albums to compare it with and I imagine the science of filling a hall that size is very different to that of putting down an album track. Kate’s movements are best described as stately. At one point she gently turned 360 degrees and the audience applauded with pleasure in acknowledgement that though her years of bouncing around in a leotard are over, we couldn’t care less.

As the last strains of ‘King of the Mountain’ faded, one of the musicians whirled some device round and round. Two cannons appeared and fired confetti into the audience, a screen came down and a short film played concerning an astronomer contacting the Coast Guard about a garbled distress call he’d heard on the radio. We didn’t need the lines from Tennyson printed on the confetti to realise that this was the start of ‘The Ninth Wave’: the second half of the ‘Hounds of Love’ album.

The screen lifted to reveal a change of set with the background made up of the rotting timbers of a ship’s hull looking like a whale skeleton. ‘The Ninth Wave’ is an hallucinatory recounting of a woman’s drowning or near-drowning. This dramatisation made concrete some of the more abstract songs. The core of this section consisted of filmed inserts of Kate floating in a tank of water singing live (as opposed to miming to playback). ‘And Dream of Sheep’ and ‘Hello Earth’ were predominantly done this way. ‘Watching You Without Me’ was preceded by a short interlude of the woman’s husband and son getting on with their lives before the news of the mother’s disappearance. The son was played by Kate’s actual son, Bertie, which made the song even more emotional.

Throughout the piece fish people, drowned sailors and rescuers wandered around. For ‘Hello Earth’ she clung to a buoy, until she slipped away and was carried off through the audience in a funeral procession by the fish people. Then rescue! And Kate and all the musicians strolled onto the stage for an acoustic version of ‘The Morning Fog’. This part reminded me of the singsongs they do at the end of performances at The Globe: all jolly and folky and fun. It was a beautiful-judged ending to the drama of the first half.

Part two was a version of the ‘A Endless Sky of Honey’ suite of songs from the second half of the ‘Ariel’ album. A huge double door on stage opened to reveal a child-sized artist’s mannequin puppet toddling out controlled by a black-clad puppeteer. This puppet strolled its way through most of ‘A Sky of Honey ‘and at one point murdered a seagull. Not sure why.

‘A Sky of Honey’ was mostly played over a back projection of birds in slow motion. It was less theatrical than ‘The Ninth Wave’, though there was plenty going on. Bertie played the painter – Rolf Harris being unavailable – in a Van Gogh hat and smock, and he got the evening’s only new song which was about the moon and slotted in just before ‘Nocturn’. He has a good voice and certainly earned his place in the production.

Throughout ‘A Sky of Honey’, Kate sang and trilled and gradually transformed into a bird, leaping into the air at the end of the piece as a tall silver birch trunk crashed onto the piano.

For the encore, she sat at the piano and played ‘Amongst Angels’ unaccompanied. Despite singing for the best part of three hours, her voice sounded as fresh as if she’d just started. It was a clear, simple performance of a moving song. Finally the band joined her for ‘Cloudbusting’ with the whole audience joining in on the ‘Yay-ee-oh’ parts. Then, with a wish that we all have a safe journey home, she was gone.

Overall, there were bits that didn’t work, sections that were overlong, and things that weren’t clear on first viewing but was it my best night in a theatre ever? Yes! For all the theatrics and dramas of the night, my abiding memory is of spending quality time with a generous, gorgeous, smiley lady. And singing along to ‘Cloudbusting’ with tears streaming down my face.

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