The story of Kate Bush’s return to live concerts is now well-known: one six-week tour in 1979 finished at the Hammersmith Apollo and she never again went on tour or performed an entire set for the public. Some cited nerves, others exhaustion from her relentless perfectionism. Rumours said that the death of her lighting director, Bill Duffield, was the reason. Whatever the cause, she stopped touring, and that decision freed her up to become a full-time studio artist.
Although it is now common for singers to describe themselves as ‘artistes’, Bush took it practically further than most. When asked by an interviewer which album she considered her best work, Bush said that she never revisited them as she was always looking to create new things. But she had once heard Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) on the radio while driving and thought it was pretty good. Like a sculpture or painter, Bush creates a work and then moves on, using her sound beds and mixing desk like a painter’s palette. In a genre that is as defiantly disposable as pop, Bush seeks to create art.
She remained in the studio, even on her return from a 12-year absence after releasing The Red Shoes. Aerial, released in 2005, was critically well-received, but there was no accompanying promotion other than a few radio and newspaper interviews. There had previously been suggestions that she had wanted to turn the second half of her magnum opus The Hounds of Love, The Ninth Wave, into a theatrical piece, but it never happened.
Until Tuesday night.
It was never going to be just Bush sitting at a piano (though that did happen). Instead, she employed a director from the RSC to turn the concerts into a narrative retelling of her two most popular pieces of work, The Ninth Wave and A Sky of Honey. But to start we got a selection of songs from her albums. Entering the stage barefoot, she stands alone in the spotlight as the impressive band clocks their way through Lily, Hounds of Love, Joanni, Top of the City, Running Up That Hill (of course) and finally King of the Mountain. As the light reggae syncopation finishes, the band pulls back as a curtain comes down; there is a perceptible prickle of anticipation in the audience as we watch the projection of a film of a man calling the coastguard. He’s seen a ship going down and he thinks there’s a woman in the sea. A woman alone in the sea? The screech and light of a search and rescue helicopter combs the audience while we hear the pilot’s commentary. Everyone is found except one woman. They are going to try again. Then Bush appears on screen bobbing in the inky water wearing a lifejacket. She is looking straight at the audience. As she starts to sing ‘little light, shining’ the audience erupts, standing on its feet and applauding. They will do this time and again this evening, though always politely returning to their seats to watch the show.
The concert is defiantly theatrical, even with its (my companion assured me) extremely expensive LED video wall. For the most part, the production design does away with major pyrotechnics instead going for good old-fashioned smoke and mirrors. Sheets are rippled across the stage to represent waves. The exposed ribs of a sunken ship frame the stage looking like the ribcage of a whale or monster. Performers dressed as skeletal sea creatures roam the set. Bush is pulled from a trapdoor in the stage floor as if from an ice hole (Under the Ice); exorcised of demons by a frankly scary priest (Waking the Witch); then comes an extended bit about sausages (yes, really); before heading through the rest of the suite. As we come to Hello Earth, a lifebuoy rises up in the centre of the stage as Bush clings to it before giving herself over to the sea creatures who carry her down through the audience. Coming back to the stage for The Morning Fog, she sings the lyric ‘I love you better now’. For many in the audience it’s a mutual feeling and they rise again, sending a concussive wave of appreciation towards the stage.
The stage is reset for the second act (it seems right to call it an act, given its theatrical nature) with the band pushed to the side of the stage. As the sound of blackbird song begins, it signals the start of a Sky of Honey. The second side (well, second half, even in the digital age) of Aerial is a meditation on light, the cycle of a day, art and birds. It’s a heady brew that ranges from flamenco guitar (Sunset) to Ibiza trance (Nocturn). The staging is sparser than for the Ninth wave. In keeping with the exploration of light, the lighting pushes the narrative on, even more so than in the first act. She thanked her lighting designer, Mark Henderson, at the start of the show, and it is clear why. All the different hues of sunlight shift seamlessly as we go through the song cycle. The back wall has a sun setting and the moon rising. Birds hover into view and race across the backdrop. A painter (played by her son, Bertie) sings and paints on a massive picture frame which has a projected image of clouds that shift and melt as the suite progresses. Meanwhile another interweaving narrative follows a wooden puppet as it…well, I’m not sure really. I think it might be a journey from innocence to adulthood, but don’t take my word for it.
As we move towards the end, Bush suddenly becomes half-bird/half-woman. She chirps along to the birdsong and sweeps back and forward with her arm now a feathered wing, as she sings and swirls against a guitarist wearing a bird mask. As the music is reaching its climax, the picture frame on stage is pulled away and Kate Bush takes to the air! Yes, she becomes a bird.
For her encore, Bush comes back to the stage, alone and sits at the piano and performs Among Angels from 50 Words for Snow. It’s one of her less well-known songs, but sits well after the emotional percussive ending of A Sky of Honey. Inviting her musicians back on stage for Cloudbusting, she signals to the audience to sing back to her and they do, with gusto. Finally she leaves the stage and there is the longest standing ovation I have ever experienced at a concert. I estimated it was a (full) 5 minutes long, but my companion thought longer. The audience were willing her back on stage. The main lights come back up on stage, and it sinks in that we’ve all just watched a bona fide icon return to live performance. At the end of Hello Earth, a voice incants ‘Tiefer, tiefer, irgendwo in der Tiefe gibt es ein Licht’: and like all of her work the more you think about it the more depths are revealed – surely the very definition of art.