Kate Bush - Hammersmith Apollo
The entrance is so perfectly pitched, you laugh at its daring. Lights dim, the Apollo raises an almighty cheer, black-clad musicians slip into position amongst the shadows and strike up a beat. A spotlight aims stage right, and all of a sudden she's there. Not, you know, rising from a hydraulic platform at the rear of the stage, silhouette outlined in classic rock pose, nor adopting de rigueur Serious Artist Saunter, seemingly oblivious of audience. No, Kate Bush, our most féted musical recluse, the artist most susceptible to flights of fancy conjured not by her own vast imaginings but by the whims of both the press and her fans – "She enters the venue on a flying unicorn while Pan himself arranges a cavalcade of cherubs at her feet!" – congas onstage, leading her five backing singers, and grinning like a child. Those singers shimmy across to their mic stands, and Kate Bush halts centre stage, sizes up the audience (standing as one, a roaring ovation that threatens to drown out the band) and starts to sing.
Who knew how this would pan out? Back in Marchwhen that announcement sniffed out 35 years of rumour and innuendo, and took perhaps a tiny chip out of a wholly unique mystique, it was all about the messy logistics. How do you get a ticket? How do you afford a ticket? What will it be like? This is the woman who, generally acknowledged as defining the female singer songwriter in the modern pop age, her influence inarguable across a generation of artists, had nixed touring since her 1979 debut. And we'd gone with it, ultimately. By the time fifth album Hounds of Love had nudged her status in the mid-eighties from superstar to something approaching Untouchable Deity, no-one bothered wasting energy wondering when the bloody tickets would go on sale. And thus it remained, her subsequent release schedule often misreported as an indicator of a shrinking vision and distaste for the industry, when in actual fact she was just getting on with life, as we all do. You could hardly question her resentment for the 'weirdo recluse' tag. Even national treasures need to find time for reflection, raise kids, take time out. Even Kate needed a bit of Kate time, it seemed.
So all of a sudden, Kate Bush does something unfathomably normal and the world spins. As the show begins, it's all so normal, doubts set in. It's 'Lily', that breathless ode to spiritual awakening and rebirth from 1993's The Red Shoes. The scene is a wonder, no argument. She's there at the front of the vast Apollo (Odeon – natch) stage, a whirling mass of hair and smiles, barefoot and that voice thundering through the hall: "I'll show you how with fire!" There's a lighting rig that pushes the venue's limitations (only for Bush would a 3,500 seater auditorium be comfortably described as 'intimate'), a sea of vari-lites. But still, even when the song ends and the roof comes off, and a battery of percussion announces 'Hounds of Love', and the place goes berserk (so much for those pre-gig snipes suggesting rich kid non-gig-goers would make the shows reserved affairs), it's magnificent but nothing more. 'Top of the City' maintains momentum. But 'Joanni' is almost cause for pause - are these really the shiniest jewels from the canon? 'Running Up That Hill' stomps doubts away. Oddly, heroicly, it sounds exactly like the record. It still sounds like the future. It still celebrates and dismisses 'pop' in equal measure. It will never run the gauntlet of our fickle judgement criteria and 'date'. It's monumental. Hammersmith rises again and there's a sustained, unstoppable ovation – the band has to start 'King of the Mountain' over it.
We're flying now. Is something happening? Have we missed what was under our very noses all along? Suddenly the band break free, slip into a looser mode. It’s louder, surely. And the song, as uncompromising a take-down of the vacuous nature of fame and wealth ("Elvis are you out there somewhere, looking like a happy man?"), takes flight; an extended coda becomes a monstrous squall, Bush with eyes closed and lost in music, threatening to levitate the building. You think: fuck. You think: we're probably not getting 'Wuthering Heights'. You think: good. You think: I don’t know what to think anymore. The lights dim. The band exits. A crack of thunder. A screen descends, on it projections of dark, swirling clouds.
Then she plays 'The Ninth Wave'.
The clues were there beforehand, apparently. A promo shot of Bush adrift at sea in a lifejacket, a hint on her website, plentiful convinced fan forum speculation, even some of the merchandise on sale at the shows. Well, for those of us attempting a first night—onwards media blackout, all we had was our hopes (forlorn?) and dreams (increasingly real, or so it seemed.) Would she really attempt a staging of her finest hour, that extended suite of songs that occupies the entire of side two of Hounds of Love? Was she even that in tune with her audience anymore? Would she not just offer what we now know would have been the ultimate week-kneed concession and shift her gaze way back and roll out all those legacy ballads?
No. She plays 'The Ninth Wave'.
A short film sets the scene. An astronomer is on the phone to the coastguard. He's picked up a distress call, faint and unclear but, to him, inarguably real. Frustrated and increasingly angry, he struggles to convey the magnitude of the situation. The film ends, the screen rises and the stage is… unrecognisable. The lighting rig and the band's risers are gone. In their place, the vast rusted remnants of a ship's hull bookend the stage. The band are now positioned behind the set and Bush appears on another screen, afloat at sea. "Little light shining / Little light will guide them to me…" Grown men weep. It's almost not happening. She's not just going to play it. She's going to re-imagine it, take 'The Ninth Wave' a galaxy beyond mere 'staging'. And so it goes. From the opening 'And Dream of Sheep' through the mordant strings of 'Under Ice' where wraith-like fish people emerge, Geiger-esque skeletal figures that stalk the stage. By now, the singers are doubling as actors and dancers and, as the narrative unfolds (Bush's character drifting in and out of a surreal dream state, weighing the prospect of her death and love for her family against a series of increasingly surreal 'happenings'), you start to understand why getting in for a tenner plus booking fee was probably never an option.
'Watching You Watching Me' is preceded by a smart two-hander set inside a skewed living room where father and son (played by Bush's son Bertie) bicker about sausages and football, unaware of the peril their family is in. Bush re-appears in radical 'She's behind you!' fashion, her entrance more Hideo Nakata than panto. 'Jig of Life' becomes a battery of strings, pipes and percussion. By now, there's just too much stuff happening. A helicopter descends on the stalls, its searchlights strafing the crowd. Bush sings 'Hello Earth' from a huge buoy, the stage floor now a rolling sea. "I get out of my car, step into the night and look up at the sky." What's 'performance' and what's not is hard to discern. We're drawing our own reality. It's enveloping, elemental. A dreamscape conjured by a woman drifting at sea takes side roads into the oft-forgotten magic of the everyday. 'Jig of Life' is narrated by John Carder Bush, Kate's brother, his face on a monitor stage-front.
And then, a master-stroke. As the piece resolves and shifts into the airy grace of 'The Morning Fog', the players step out of character and Bush leads her troupe back onto the stage (lucky you if you're sat front stalls right, by the way) and they play it for laughs, the actors swopping fish head masks for smiles, the audience dancing and clapping, a release and a relief. She played 'The Ninth Wave'. Don’t let anyone tell you it didn’t happen. It happened.
A twenty minute break is supposed to allow you to rewire your synapses. What next? As the houselights dim once more, the soft, burring coo of wood pigeons fill the hall. Birdsong, and people clap in recognition – people clap birdsong. For this is the prelude to 'An Endless Sky of Honey', the 40 minute second half of Bush's 2005 epic double album Aerial, the epic work that ended her twelve year silence. All manner of fantastical theatricals bend and warp the original work into something new. Sensitively retouched, it's bigger in every sense, running for over an hour. Bertie as The Painter from the original work takes the lead on a new song 'Tawny Moon'. Huge picture frames, the back drop a never ending vista of sky, sunset, moonrise, birds in flight, blood, nature at its most lustrous. There's a huge set of wooden doors that open and close the story, snow, bird costumes for even the band, a life size wooden artist's doll that seems almost alive...
At one point, Bush harmonises with blackbird song. She injects potentially bland utterances ("What a lovely afternoon…") with a crazed and infectious passion. Is this uncompromising dissection of her back catalogue a step too far, a leap only manageable for the properly hardcore? Nah. Hammersmith is rapt. No-one as much as blinks. No-one calls for 'Wow'. (Be honest – when was the last time you dug out Never For Ever, huh?) The closing 'Aerial' always felt more suited to the club, or a 12" at least, and its pulsing euphorics pull the audience to its feet. If the crowds have been this attentive every night, then they've been key to the show's success. No-one takes pictures, no-one calls out, no-one talks, everyone immerses. Bush tries to thank her band and cast but it's too loud in here. The audience: It's our turn now, lady.
Two encores. Perfect. First Bush solo at the piano for a tender reading of 'Among Angels'. "There's someone who’s loved you forever but you don’t know it," she sings. Hearts cleave, but joyously. The voice, you realise, is still all there. At 56 (so young!), she still sings like nobody other than Kate Bush. "Where's the band? Oh, here they are," she says, as they return to the stage, as if she's only just remembered them. And then: "I still dream of Organon!" Just when you've nailed 'Running Up That Hill' as the greatest single of all time, along comes the song it shares a side of vinyl with ready to argue the point, its pumping strings an invigorating, intoxicating clarion. Hammersmith bursts. 'Cloudbusting' is huge and daft and glorious. It closes the show on a barely legal high.
What next? What, already? With half of this 22 night run still to come, you want more? Will she tour? When's the next album? Steady, people. Now's not the time to get greedy. What say we let the artist acclimatise, take stock? Right now, it matters not that she, pfft, favours London or simply can’t cope with demand. Leave logistics to the drones and art to the dreamers. All that matters now is that she was here and we were here. All that matters is that, just when we'd given up hope, Kate Bush got curious, got hungry; went back to this vast, universal body of work and in an act of love as generous as it was unexpected, acutely aware of who it really belongs to, she handed it back. And it's ours forever. These songs: they're ours forever.