A bit of surprising news that nobody ever expected to hear was announced on 21 March 2014. British musical icon Kate Bush, one of the most important and influential artists of the last four decades, was set to embark on her first live performances in 35 years with a residency at the Eventim Apollo Hammersmith in London, beginning in late August of the same year. The announcement understandably shocked and roiled the music industry and jolted her fans into a frenzy of jubilation and anticipation. When tickets went on sale only a week later, they were snapped up in a matter of minutes for all of the announced performances, prompting the addition of more dates. Eventually, she performed the theatrical Before the Dawn concert series, complete with elaborate staging and visuals, 22 times before very fortunate and enthusiastic fans who probably never imagined that they’d be witnessing Kate Bush live on stage. It seemed like such an impossibility for so many years that it was hardly ever contemplated, and yet now it was happening.
The show, captured here, was structured in three parts: an opening section of selected tracks from several of her albums, and two lengthy theatrical suites recorded 20 years apart. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the dramatic change in her voice over the years, no songs from prior to 1985’s Hounds of Love, arguably her greatest album, are included in the set. Bush’s voice, a warbling soprano when she debuted the beguiling classic “Wuthering Heights” in 1978, is now a rich contralto that remains deeply compelling and fully capable of expressing all the emotion and beauty present in many of her most beloved songs.
Ever since the shows wrapped up two years ago, fans fortunate enough to attend have yearned for a recorded souvenir to document their experience, while those of us for whom circumstances didn’t allow to be present have been eager to experience the show via other means. While no DVD is planned for release, Bush has delivered a faithful audio archive of these performances with the new three-CD/four-LP set Before the Dawn, credited to the KT Fellowship as an acknowledgment of the team effort that went into the production. Bush presents her work surprisingly raw and unrefined, unaltered by studio trickery or overdubs. On “Hello Earth”, for example, her voice quavers a bit at times, but she doesn’t touch it up with newly-recorded vocals as most artists do on live albums. As a result, the mix is surprisingly murky, and at times the album feels like a very good audience recording bootleg. It’s an interesting approach for the notoriously perfectionist Bush, but she obviously concluded it was the best way to present an authentic document of her historic run of shows and despite the flaws, it’s hard to argue. This set feels and sounds like you’re in the room as she performs.
Bush and her band open with “Lily”, a soaring rocker from her 1993 release The Red Shoes. She doesn’t hold back on her well-known eccentricities, or one might say wonderful weirdness, as she goes full throttle vocally to the point where at times she’s almost growling. Then comes the shouted warning, “It’s in the trees, it’s coming!”, and she launches into a jaw-dropping take on the harrowing “Hounds of Love”, the title track from her 1985 masterpiece. Bush manages to instill all the anxiety and urgency of the studio version and brings it to vibrant life three decades after it was initially recorded.
Bush then digs deeper into her catalog with a trio of selections, “Joanni”, “Top of the City” and “Never Be Mine”, that make clear her intention is not a simple run-through of her greatest hits, but it is her greatest hit that offers one of the show’s undeniable highlights. It’s a chill-inducing moment when the opening swell of keyboard and the sensual, tribal rhythm of “Running Up That Hill” begins. Bush does her greatest song justice, tackling it with all the searing intensity it requires. The lavish stage production includes a superb team of background singers who deftly manage to recreate the original’s complex and haunting vocal arrangement. There is no shying away from the intricacies of Bush’s recorded work to make it easier to perform live. This is a once in a lifetime musical event and Bush and her team clearly worked very hard to present the best show they possibly could. The opening set closes with a tremendous eight minute “King of the Mountain”, the lead single from Bush’s outstanding 2005 comeback album Aerial.
The most fully successful section of Before the Dawn follows, a theatrical dramatization of the entire Ninth Wave suite that comprises Side Two of Hounds of Love. The song-cycle tells of a woman lost at sea in a life-jacket after a shipwreck, relating the thoughts and dreams that stream through her mind as she drifts in the cold water, fading, hoping for rescue. It’s an ambitious undertaking to recreate the much-loved sequence of some of Bush’s greatest songs, but Bush and her colleagues pull it off with grace, power and painstaking attention to detail. After an extended monologue that helps explain the conceptual framework, the suite opens with the breathtaking “And Dream of Sheep”, performed by Bush on the piano with perhaps her finest vocal on the album. “Under Ice” is appropriately chilling, and the nightmarish “Waking the Witch”, frantic and desperate, is translated live far better than one might have imagined given the song’s intensity and complexity.
Bush’s brothers, Paddy and John Carder, are very much present in the live performance of an album on which they played an integral part. John Carder Bush reprises his riveting narration on a thunderous presentation of the Celtic flavored “Jig of Life”. Bush’s character, still lost at sea and spiraling further into delirium, imagines herself as an old woman who beseeches her younger self to stay alive so that the elder’s part of the lifeline is not cut from the future. The suite’s epic climax, “Hello Earth”, is majestic and thrilling. It’s masterfully arranged and performed, arguably the album’s highest point in an ocean of highs. The finale, “The Morning Fog”, which enacts Bush’s character awakening after being rescued, is as exuberant as one would expect. It concludes The Ninth Wave with a sense of joyous triumph and a deep appreciation for life.
The Ninth Wave alone is worth putting down the money for this collection, but Bush is far from finished. She tackles an even more elaborate piece with A Sky of Honey, a lengthy suite originally released as the entire second half of Aerial. This section may try the patience of some listeners who aren’t necessary die-hard Kate Bush fans. The third act has moments of spellbinding beauty, but also at times, there are lulls that were more effective for audience members who were able to experience the visuals on stage. Some of the interludes and longer pieces don’t translate particularly well to an audio-only presentation. Put more bluntly, portions of the hour-long suite are simply a bit dull.
That said, one cannot help but be impressed by the scope of the production and the power with which it is brought to fruition. Bush’s son, Albert McIntosh, who was an integral part of the show’s creative team, delivers a winsome vocal on “Tawny Moon”, a piece newly written for the show that is sequenced between the suite’s two highlights, “Somewhere in Between”, and the dazzling “Nocturne”. The nearly 10-minute “Aerial” closes the suite with a massive explosion of sound, drama and presumably, for the audience fortunate enough to have the chance to see her, enormous spectacle. It’s an ending worthy of a long and winding journey that is ultimately worth taking despite the occasional drifts into tedium.
Bush wraps up the show and album with a two-song encore: “Among Angels”, the only track present from her 2011 album 50 Words for Snow, and a dynamic performance of the majestic “Cloudbusting”. The audience reaction is ecstatic, and Bush’s gracious appreciation is touching and obviously heartfelt.
Before the Dawn is a bit of an enigma. Yes, it’s magical to hear the reclusive Kate Bush live on stage performing these songs, a musical event that few thought would ever happen. There are genuine moments of grandeur on this album, as befitting a project so elaborate and historic. While the album’s highs are very lofty indeed and The Ninth Wave works beautifully, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the entire experience would have been more profoundly entertaining had Bush refrained from performing the entire Sky of Honey set and instead focused on a couple key tracks as part of a sequence comprising a more varied selection from her catalog. It’s easy to imagine songs like “And So Is Love”, “Pull Out the Pin”, “Under the Ivy”, “This Woman’s Work”, “Love and Anger”, “How to Be Invisible” and “Wild Man” among many other Kate Bush gems performed on stage. The notion of a live performance of her duet “Don’t Give Up” (could she have snagged Peter Gabriel for some of the shows?) is spine-tingling to even contemplate.
Still, given the circumstances, it seems churlish to suggest that Bush should have structured her return after a 35-year absence from the stage in any way other than exactly how she wanted. She does it her way, as she always has, and while one may quibble with a few aspects of the album it’s still a remarkable listen. Perhaps now that Kate Bush has completed work on Before the Dawn — the residency and the deluxe live album — she will move on to new projects. It’s clear that nearly 40 years since her debut single, the creative prowess of one of popular music’s most valuable treasures is undiminished.