It takes effort to explain the adolescent passion effused by the enchanted Kate Bush enthusiast at the mere promise of being in the presence of her expected bewitching majesty, let alone communicate a review of what it was like to have been there, to get to see her feet planted firmly doing what I’d theretofore only imagined she’d do best if she did, along with the rest of her bests. Then she goes on and does it.
Therein lies my appraisal’s paradox: A pure description of this extraordinary happening can only be done in the fashion with which she and her collective achieved it.
As she alternately belted out and whispered her words and their notes or sauntered about the stage warbling and humming more notes and their connotations – previously only known as they’d come crafted and honed, sometimes for several years at a time, now reworked in service of a more specific theatrical interpretation while at once remaining true-to-life in performance as originally inspired – I was reminded of the most remarkable thing about the whole endeavour: She is human. Which is what I am. I am one of those, which seems unfathomable. Graciously, she lends consistent reminders of this shared humanity between the lines, crosses, and curves that sometimes stun.
That may sound like an absurd way to say that her performance was life-affirming, but it’s not just that. It’s that after decades of listening to her painstakingly recorded compositions, now hearing her voice live, even as powerful as it remains, really brought it down to earth. Extraterrestrial she will always be, but so incredibly human.
There is this impression I have had of her over the years that came exclusively from the records because I didn’t know anything else. Many of her lyrics have rung straight to the core of my person; I’ve often idealized that she felt the way I did; she was relating to me personally, not the other way around. It creates the effect that her greatest talent comes from some ineffable elsewhere instead of her simply being in tune with what resonates uniquely with this odd subset of followers. With the penultimate song of the evening, she rang me up again, this time live, alone at the piano as we, several hundred, sat spellbound. It was abundantly apparent that I wasn’t the only one who’d felt it.
To be embarrassingly honest in the hopes of not belaboring a point, or maybe just finally getting to it, I long fancied that if she were depressed like me, that I’d be less pathetic.
These are not unusual thoughts to occur to an admirer of any number of musicians, but when you talk to Kate Bush fans across the spectrum, they all mention the profound universality of her poetry. She is able to capture complexity simply, or sing the otherworldly as commonplace and vice-versa. And the way she’s owned each of the characters on all the albums would lead one to assume that she is each and every one of them. Of course, in a sense, she is, as we all are, for that is what this art is about. But she draws on a lot of sources for her inspiration, and it’s how she makes them invisible in renewal that creates the honest illusion that no one had ever sung this song before or has since.
An occasional lyrical re-visitation of hers is something quite commonplace in folk and popular music: appreciating love for all its worth or suffering the devastation for not having done so; or dealing with the infectious turmoil of contradictory impulses like reaching out vs. shying away. But she really nails it right down to the heartstrings, often quite twisted, spinning schmaltz into sophistication by connecting the innermost to the world outside with the utmost brevity of gorgeous, ambiguous precision, leaving loads to interpretation.
Now it’s not just the recording of carefully crafted phrases that – these thirty-five years of laying it strictly on the record – she’s communicated to the each & every, as if leaving a private message. Now it’s in person. That seemingly everyone in the room was taking her call, and collect, showed we were as happy for her as we were for ourselves at having gone through whatever to actually get to the gig. The musician Anna Calvi put it perfectly when she recently talked with the Beeb about how everyone was rooting for her. You could feel it.
I don’t really know why, but I always had the impression that she’d be as kind a human as you’d meet and, man, did that come across on the night. Not just her genuinely grateful and humble response to the cheerful applause, it was also the way she carried herself in the performance: how she smiled and swayed to the grooves she had arranged without the slightest hint of pride; the words she used to heap praise on the band and the creative way she went about it; all the way to the end, when she wished us all safe trips home, her way of politely letting us know that it really was the last song of the night and that she really cherished that we’d come so far. I don’t know any less cheesy a way to put it than to say that she exudes sweetness through and through.
It’s been said that she’s so humble that it makes her seem oblivious to her talent. Some would chalk something like that up to feigned modesty, but I think she believes that the exemplary results she achieves are down to good fortune, which might be partly correct. I choose to give her full credit nevertheless. If it’s luck, she’s made good on it. This human has earned those wings. Ultimately, as far as I can tell, she is the one doing the delivery.
So that’s Level 1, and the most important one: She could not have delivered the music any better than she did. It was pitch perfect in tone, attitude, and emotion.
But at six songs in, we hadn’t reached the theatre just yet.
Giving moments back
If you’ve read reviews of the Before the Dawn performances, you have an idea that an awful lot went into creating the overall spectacle. Obviously you’d need to witness it yourself to truly relate, but to get this show and its reception, you’d have to receive it in context; if you don’t know this woman’s work, it’s at best spectacular bells & whistles with the occasional unusually pretty melody thrown in.
Having said that, there is something you can get either way, but it requires giving yourself over completely to the possible transcendence of a live performance, which necessitates the respectful receptiveness of your surroundings, and the relaxed raptness of your person.
As life has become so distracting, many people don’t understand this kind of submission. The short attention span brought on by the golden age of television is but a shrinking blip amidst the growing influence of documenting everything all the time while paying barely any attention to it. Now that we can share whatsoever instantaneously, the first thing out the window is the ability to tell what’s worthy of being shared, which includes recognizing that moment that is for you, now.
Odd that a world in which people spend most idle moments tending to mobile fidgetry more closely resembles the dystopian depiction of zombified masses staring blankly into space than does staring blankly into space. I’ve witnessed both and know the difference. If I stepped onto a train and everyone was just looking straight ahead, I’d feel a great sense of relief.
These 21st century-fangled idle moments are space invading, for it is no longer that people are getting things done where they might’ve been just sitting around; this tasking has become finding things to occupy oneself with, in turn so compulsive, it’s taking over other moments that used to require special focus and translating them to meaningless downtime.
As I tried to descend the stairs to the tube to Hammersmith, I was greeted by the primate version of bats swarming from an alcove at dusk’s conclusion. I’d seen some pretty crazy shit at rush hour when I lived in Chicago (Berlin being barely better) but never as extreme. Once on the train, however, it was pretty typical of how I remember any rush hour: the default arrangement, a molestation of whoever your standing next to; jockeying for exit position one station ahead of time lest you miss your stop; climbing out stinking like an animal even though you’d showered within the hour. Passengers still managing to finger their tiny screens in all that chaos, and who were therewith genuinely trying to get work done, represent consummately the tragicomedy of the tech industry’s promise to make life easier.
It is still possible to shut that shit off and pay attention to what is going on in front of you, which is essentially what Kate was suggesting one week prior to the debut of the run when she expressed how much it would mean to her if the show were free of cameras of any kind. For most of her fans this was an unnecessary request, as it so turned out, and most of the on-line response was supportive, but there were still those few cynics who expressed the belief that her motivation was crassly commercial. My guess is that such do not believe in the utterly transformative power of the unified collective experience, save for mass starvation, circle jerks, and the hundred iPhone salute.
Even so, you might find yourself thinking “Jesus, dude, it’s no big deal! If you’re so enraptured by the concert, how is my taking a memento or two going to distract you from it?”
Symptoms meet the disease.
But with these words I, too, get easily distracted, for this was not a problem in the least at the show. And I don’t mean to place myself above the fray; I do understand that even someone whose intention was to refrain might anyway be overcome by the compulsion to sneak one particular moment artificially forever. We are buried in our current culture and are not going back just yet, at least not in that sense. But for those familiar with the Kids in the Hall “crushing your head” sketches, keep in mind that a smartphone in front of me would have been both bigger and smaller than what I was trying to focus on.
Fortunately, the pre-show reminder reiterating the artist’s polite request in slightly more absolute terms may have been the pre-emptive shaming necessary for anyone unable to resist the residual impulse in spite of themselves. If there was a lighted mobile device in the room, I didn’t see it.
With the description of that pleasant outcome out of the way, the stage is set for the song-suites, which comprised the vast majority of the show both in time and theatrical expense, my recollection of which here now contains spoilers aplenty, ameliorated, I’d like to think, by my allusive approach.
To survive or not to survive?
The Ninth Wave is the concept side of 1985′s Hounds of Love. Here it is presented via two corresponding forms of media:
One medium depicts what is really happening: Our life-jacketed protagonist stranded upon a vast expanse of water, face to the dark sky. I find Kate’s performance at once effectively agora- & claustrophobic, the vocals accomplished under extreme circumstances. How? I have no idea.
The other medium represents the coping stream of conscious & unconscious thought scattered over the course of the first medium’s depiction of the steady threat of the loneliest death in the middle of the night, in the middle of the sea.
As on the album, this human struggle plunges into the grim longing to let go And Dream of Sheep and takes on various phantasmagorical forms until The Morning Fog.
In between, it doesn’t skip a bit: feeling suffocated Under Ice; persecuted upon life’s little memories Waking the Witch; forced to endure Watching You Without Me, dis-communicably in the alienating presence of loved ones; confronted with a future self’s Jig of Life, during which poet John Carder Bush’s new reading is relevant and powerful in a way I never knew.
Each wave bigger than the last
I figured Hello Earth might be a fave; it gets to me with the emotional sound of the phrasing of syllables as much as with the lyrics digested in toto. I hadn’t thought of it as a part of the whole before, but, then again, the journey was never quite like this. It steals my breath as the Irish would say, literally. It turns wondrous and terrifying. Kate’s portrayal is heart-wrenching and the set design is clever madness. The staging shows something way beyond what I ever thought it was supposed to be, not that I could explain it to you now. Still, Kate cries out from between the lines with an intensity unmatched in theater or song that I have seen, which is probably why it ends up, indeed, topping the rest until…
…we arrive at another art of climax with the conclusion’s comedown. But I guess you might say the denouement does what it’s supposed to by changing my goosebumps.
B E G I N S P E C I F I C S P O I L E R
Ushering in the The Morning Fog, the entire band steps forward away from their stations, each with his or her acoustic instrument in hand or over the shoulder. I’ve seen others do this before and, indeed, one of the band were in the other group that did it.
E N D S P E C I F I C S P O I L E R
But the singer and the song make all the difference in the world. And the circumstances (my being there). I’ll get back to this one later when I wrap this up.
After this intense opera and the enormous response to it – which, with the opening mini-concert that preceded it, was an hour-and-a-half give or take nothing – Kate gushes as if we were the ones who played for her. I do believe she is grateful to us for more than our thunder: It feels good all around when we are unequivocally available to one another. A lesson I’m still learning.
King of the mountain, yeah.
So she informs us – in the way of a kindly bashful grammar school teacher whose class has just completed the first act of the school play – that there would be an intermission of about twenty to twenty-five minutes to rest up a bit after which they’d be back to play more music. It’s these glimpses of innocence amidst brilliance that, for me, elevate her to the crown.
This’d be a good point to tout the band’s versatility, including the chorus’ performances in & out of creepy fish and bird costumes and how utilitarian they were, carting unwieldy things about while keeping their vocal parts true to the music.
And for all of the moving set pieces and detailed workings of the effects presented on-stage, professionals familiar with the art were required in no small number, though thanks to their being dwarfed by the immensity of what they were manipulating, they never intruded on the fantasy.
And, sorry, I cannot help but mention Kate’s doing the “whoops” in the song (as if not naming it avoids spoiling it) that I’d always assumed were from some weird instrument played by her brother Paddy. Her present take displays a mastery of juggling vocals in odd time along with the more recently re-acquired physical stage movement.
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Not being a drinker meant I pee’d during the interval,
but not because I had the overwhelming urge.
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By her own account, this return to the stage would not have happened were it not for the urging of her son Albert. Given the integral part he played on Aerial, his being made prominent over this extended segment is essential, even if it were not to be in the flesh, and even if he hadn’t consulted on the show. Which he was, and he did. One might hint that he was the featured artist within. One’d have used a pun. Doubled?
I can imagine him doing well in theater, musical or not. It’s too soon to tell for sure from what we’ve witnessed so far, but with the right guidance, he can probably do whatever he wants. I’d like to think he hasn’t ruled out becoming a doctor like his grandfather, which reaped amazing results. Whatever he chooses (my god, he’s barely sixteen, for chrissakes) I am eternally grateful to him for making this happen.
Aerial (2005) was released twenty years after Hounds. It might confound some fans that the music that’s been played during this run, with the exception of one song from 50 Words for Snow, came exclusively from three albums bookended by these two.
What? Nothing from the first four!? Nothing from The Sensual World?! In retrospect, I am a little surprised that I didn’t notice it at the time. It could be that giving over to the moment can protect you from disappointment, but I frankly didn’t care what she was gonna play. And once the show’s over, being disappointed by what I didn’t get to hear would be on the flimsy end of flakey.
In short: I think the choice of material is solid from beginning to end and see no reason to contrast how I’d feel hearing what I didn’t. If you asked, “Come on! You telling me you didn’t want to hear anything from The Dreaming or want her to play more solo piano pieces?”
Shush! It’s starting…
Just that something more
As in song-suite number one, A Sky of Honey is also the concept side of its album, this time the aforementioned Aerial. Its narrative is less dramatic, but also more bizarre, following an artist and a puppet and an assortment of birds and whatever else Kate surprises us with through a cycle of the sun and, in this case, the moon.
Prelude: LIGHTS, BIRDS, ACTION! We were in for another marvel, entirely different. The contrast is paradigm shifting, or maybe just pallet cleansing. It is an effective break, but this is an assured intro to ease us into something else. Here I refer mainly to the tableau, for thematically, there is, at least, an interesting transition from the end of the wave to the beginning of the sky.
So much goes on that I cannot be certain, but I think that the greater balance of effects in this half are done with Mark Henderson’s lighting design and impressive projections that are hard to give singular credit to, not to take away from the set- & costume-piece work that continue to astonish.
The beginning is innocent enough. As unsettling as the beauty of the previous one was, the beauty of this one is pure. Where the light from the first was dark, here it is vibrant bright going down to deep shades of deeper color.
And the music just swims.
For you who have seen the official photo of Kate at the piano, it is from Prologue, number two of this side. Getting to see & hear her play this is priceless.
Relative to that, I’d like to mention something about the proximity to the stage of one’s seat at a venue. It’s true you want to be able to observe the fingers on the board, or the creases of facial expression. To see the artist breathing out and breathing in. To catch that twinkle in the eye. More important, in spite of all that, is the sound.
Especially in a theatre like this one, there is a sweet spot, usually fairly central, within which one can be enveloped in the power of the perfect mix, assuming there is one. Before the Dawn had a pretty perfect mix. Most crucially, Kate’s voice was as clear as I have ever heard a singer’s voice betwixt & between this kind of instrumentation, especially from the relative proximity of row Y, seat 5.
The thing is, being four seats from the outside aisle definitely kept me away from the sweet spot. And, I dunno, you know what? It might be a good thing that I was. Had I been dead center ten rows back during this Prologue, I’d’ve been reduced to goo never to return, like the snowman in that Mistraldespair animation.
Speaking of animation, in addition to serving as one of the chorus throughout the night, Bertie gets to do some pretty nifty tricks with this suite’s special representation of the sky. And then there’s the broader sky that he gets to dabble with later. He must be having a good time with this.
Up on the roof
There aren’t that many moments during Before the Dawn that lend themselves to physical audient interaction. Sunset has one of the bits that would get another venue to stand & shimmy, and I have no doubt that there will be subsequent performances where this is the case. If there were anything I might wish had been that wasn’t, it bears upon this.
We might have for example yelled in precise unison “…and sunset!” in response to Kate’s call of “Oh sing of summer…” Not that the chorus weren’t doing an exemplary job of it, but I know the artist can get as much a kick out of this kind of thing as the audience does.
In fairness, I wasn’t leading the charge and people are afraid of those who do. Either afraid that they’ll, then, never stop, sit down, and shut up, or that the whole lot of us will screw up the show trying to sing our part ( el-oh-el ;-)
In spite of this cognitive-whiplash inducing nitpicking, however, A Sky of Honey is plenty uplifting throughout. My god, just naming the individual titles makes me long to go again. I mean, throw a dart at the album side and your likely to hit an moving epos of poetic concision all its own. As much as I was into what was being played, it’s a wonder I didn’t freak out knowing what was coming next.
And she just doesn’t let up. The final song, the title track to the album, rips with the combined power of everything that came before it. And the bird song imitation: just fucking perfect. I take it back; she’s not human.
Undoubtedly, the insane anthropomorphic costume and set design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and Dick Bird, respectively, would seem to confirm that suspicion. And as I said before, everyone is playing their part. Musically, David Rhodes’ guitar really helps send this one over the edge. If not for Kate’s aw-shucksing at the conclusion, I might’ve thought they hadn’t come down. I know I haven’t quite yet.
For the sake of those who hope to enjoy what you believe might be the inevitable DVD (I wouldn’t be too sure), I’ll spare you the final image. In lieu of that, just this cliché, multi-tiered for the fan: Wow.
To be clear, that monosyllabic reaction includes a lot more than just the final image.
Aren’t we all the same?
When you know there’s going to be an encore, you also know what’s coming. She emerges alone, crosses from stage left to right where the piano is, sits, and…
What’s it gonna be? You know it’s gonna be sooo good. No, not that one. She played that already.
We talk of art speaking to us, so it’s not out of line to say that a song speaks to us, accordingly, that a singer speaks to us. In this case, I feel complementary effects that lead me to a massive internalized gasp: First, as the piano begins, I feel like I am hearing this for the second or third time, as when I was just getting to know the album, then the vocal begins and for a flash… it’s like she actually says something directly to me… the sense of which gets a microsecond echo barely one time in my head while she completes the phrase with such careful focus and focused care. Gingerly specific gorgeous ambiguity.
The closest feeling I can use as a comparison is like how your name sounds in the belly of your brain when you get called on in class because it’s obvious you weren’t paying attention. In that I am paying attention, though, it’s not too much like that. Maybe it’s more like I can’t quite believe what I’ve just heard. I’m stunned to have been called out. In a daze. Before she’s done with the second line, I feel so exposed that I just about look around to see if everyone is staring at me.
The rest of the song continues to speak to me in the more general sense, as others have done, but it is the very first time for this one. It doesn’t make sense why that should be. Oh my god; it’s like she is calling me out for not having got this message before. And how she must feel singing this. Or having felt compelled to write it… and now singing it.
She pulls me in, deeper, right down to the final word when… as the last chord decays… she can’t resist breaking the tension by thanking us before it falls silent. After all she wrang out of us over the last few hours, could this woman still be so unsure? In and out of doubt, so incredibly human.
We’d’ve broken the tension for you, Kate. We just needed a second.
Anyone reading this far who is also familiar with her entire catalog might think they’d be disappointed that this song was the only one she played from the latest album. But if you were there, and, without leaving the piano, she came up and tapped you on your shoulder and whispered in your ear, you wouldn’t give a fuck if she were farting Yankee Doodle Lionheart in total disrespect to her earlier magnificence.
My point being: Were I, for example, given the silly authority to choose what gets played, I wouldn’t have had this experience – not to mention I couldn’t have settled on a decision. Surely we trust our favorite artists to create their own work; we should trust them to know what to present. Her choice here was inspired and gutsy beyond what one might fully be able to appreciate. So sublime.
I hid my yo-yo
Drummer Omar Hakim starts the last song in a “seems like an obvious choice but only once you hear him doing it” way, though I dare-say that a plurality of the audience doesn’t know what is coming. If I may, it’s the drum pattern that normally only climaxes at the end, when this time the audience, indeed, shows Kate and her supporting chorus what we’re capable of. A touching touch to an evening this verbal attribution is probably unworthy of.
But this is more than an evening, or a residence of a couple few weeks. I need to return to The Morning Fog to put my best spin on this, to try to justify writing about it in the first place.
I have been given so much from this music over what now amounts to well over the majority of my lifetime. If many of the songs themselves have made my eyes wet, or I’ve wept harder in despair because of whatever I was going through at the time, it made me want to persevere long enough to hear more, if nothing else.
I can’t know if Kate Bush has ever felt exactly the way I have when I am at my lowest, or thought precisely the way I do in whatever state I’m in. I only know we’re both human.
I also know that after a period of well over half her lifetime she was encouraged to play out again by her son, to whom she all but dedicated an album that had taken twice his contemporaneous age when it was finally released. You know what? It is better for it.
Thirty-five years ago, before I knew who she was, she had just concluded a rewarding but stressful period of production, both in the studio and on the stage, that evidently persuaded her not to continue in the same vein. This was no absence. She still lived half-a-lifetime working more or less during any given period, dedicating her artistic energy to composing better work with each of her albums and made more people happy along the way than any president, prime minister, or priest.
Like all humans, she went to sleep and awoke and in between made decisions and traveled roads both real and conceptual, but by all means personal – the decisions and roads rarely a straight line, and when the stages upon which she had danced and sang crumbled, she continued, and when new stages were built, she continued, and when paths crossed after for so long leading in divergent directions, the stage was still there. The extended time away from the stage was just a vacancy of one kind of thing. Obviously she hadn’t a need for that thing. And you know what? She seems better for it.
I take her at her word when she sings that she loves us better now. This line rings as true as any other on a night whereupon she shares half her lifetime’s worth of moments compressed into a few hours, an eternity longer than the same few hours compressed to symbols representing running time.
One can only guess how much and to what extent these songs correspond in quality to her historical state of mind and how much and how far she has to go to cull them from her imagination. Wherever they come from, they’re a mirror to the human condition held up by one with the same.
What is this human condition? Why do some of us sink and some of us swim and some of us soar & sing until the sun goes down? How is it that there are those who relish and those who dread the light that breaks the morning fog?
Begin to bleed,
Begin to breathe,
Begin to speak.
D’you know what?
I love you better now.
I am falling
Like a stone,
Like a storm,
Being born again
Into the sweet morning fog.
D’you know what?
I love you better now.
And I’d love to hold you know.
I’ll kiss the ground.
I’ll tell my mother,
I’ll tell my father,
I’ll tell my loved one,
I’ll tell my brothers
How much I love them.
The Morning Fog music & lyrics by Kate Bush
Biggest surprise: that King of the Mountain was so thrilling.
Biggest disappointment, but not really: that she was probably too nervous to wait until the cheers subsided so I could hear all of what she had to say between songs.
Favorite moment: Wow. (No, not the song. You didn’t skip to the bottom, did you? Write me and tell me if you did.)
This one goes to eleven: ✳✳✳✳✳✳✳✳✳✳✳
Back in Berlin
Ripe Summer Sunset o’er Warschauerstraße – 2014