Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Kate Bush Returns to the Stage


Ken McKay/Noble and Brite, via Associated Press
Kate Bush, through the decades, has become known as a farseeing artist, carrying out ambition at her own speed. Surely that perception has been encouraged by all the images in her songs of places where the view is unobstructed. Shores, mountains, skies.

Those images came through, in word and light and theater, during her concert here on Tuesday night at the Eventim Apollo; they gathered force until nearly the end, in the final bars of the lengthy song cycle “Sky of Honey.” Barefoot, dressed in a dark caftan, Ms. Bush slowly put on bird wings, and then suddenly spread her arms into a giant span, when she was yanked up by a pulley into sudden darkness.

The audience went adult-crazy at that moment of apotheosis, about which more later. But there were also songs about the opposite condition: being unable to communicate, being mortally trapped. It’s the natural flip side. One doesn't make its case without the other.

Ms. Bush has been in show business for 40 years, and most of them without shows. She was 16 when EMI signed her, in 1974, and is 56 now. She never truly stopped making records, though there were some long gaps. But before Tuesday — the first of 22 performances of an extraordinary spectacle called “Before the Dawn” — a 1979 six-week European tour was her last time in front of paying audiences.

Perfectionists can develop fears of delivering incompletely, and fear has been cited, in various anecdotes, as one of the reasons for her absence. (Parenthood, too, which also involves long-distance vision.) The heavy-stock program printed for the show details an 18-month collaborative gestation with musicians, actors, light and set and production designers, the novelist David Mitchell, 3-D animators, an illusionist and puppeteers. In it she heavily credits her son, Bertie McIntosh, now 16 and a singer in the show, as well as its creative adviser. “Without his encouragement and enthusiasm,” she wrote, “particularly in the early stages when I was very frightened to commit to pushing the ‘go’ button, I’m sure I would have backed out.” Part of a concertgoer’s interest before the curtain rose on Tuesday was not in how we would react to the likes of her, but how she would react to the likes of us. Would she be spooked? Is it all too much?

Ms. Bush’s music starts with illustrations of motion: In her skyscraper voice, which has inevitably lost some top end, and her precise phrasing, which has grown more relaxed; in the sequential movement and radical key changes of some of her songs; and also in her body language, which in her old videos gave the impression of liberation and play. It also starts with a basic force of wonder and the desire to connect patterns in nature, so that the distance closes between people and animals and weather patterns. She forces herself into naïve places, not to know less, but to know more.

The concert, with a seven-piece band and five backup singers, traced a slow climb to the final quick ascension. She started with a set of stand-alone songs, some of them mid-’80s hits — “Hounds of Love” and “Running Up That Hill” — but also tracks from later records: “Lily,” “Joanni,” “Never Be Mine.” She stayed away from her earliest work, with the greatest vocal gymnastics, and at first moved warily.

Then she performed entire halves of records — the conceptual, interwoven-story parts. First was Side 2 of the album “Hounds of Love”: the seven songs collectively titled “The Ninth Wave,” with a central character trapped under ice, and possibly returning to her family as a ghost. It’s like a soundtrack to a disjointed film, and here the theater took over; for a stretch the vocalists sang against surround-sound backing tracks. There were actors with fish-skeleton heads, a rescue crew in life jackets. A film of an astronomer with a telescope calling the Coast Guard to report a sinking ship, with dialogue written by Mr. Mitchell. Another film of Ms. Bush singing face up in the cold water. An apparatus with flashing lights and sound — a rescue helicopter — descended from the ceiling. And in the second section of the story, Ms. Bush-as-ghost suddenly appeared in a living room set aslant, as if sinking into the floor, to visit her partner and son.

The subject of “Sky of Honey,” the second CD of her 2005 double-disc album, “Aerial,” is bird-flight and song and sun — beauty, basically — and onstage, a 19th-century painter figure, played by young Mr. McIntosh, pantomimed putting it all on canvas, while a young boy, in the form of a wooden artist’s model turned into a puppet, acted out his fascination with birds. (At points Ms. Bush sang, and laughed, to mimic birdsong.) The songs use repetition, much more than her earlier work, and slow, hypnotizing grooves; the drummer Omar Hakim found the center of them, and Ms. Bush finally began to move to them like a dancer.

“Before the Dawn” is light and film and movement and theater, but also a rock show, dense, cathartic and physical. The audience, still as stones during the music, stood to cheer whenever tiny between-song intervals allowed. After the full-band final encore, “Cloudbusting,” it would not leave until the tech crew arrived to dismantle the stage. “Thank you so much for such a wonderful, warm and positive response,” Ms. Bush said, with remarkable composure. She’s going to do this 21 more times?

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