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Do you know what? Some thoughts after seeing Kate Bush

September 26, 2014

Kate BushIf I could identify one moment in the whole evening of the Before the Dawn show that made most impact on me, it was a moment during the performance of the final song in the Ninth Wave song-cycle, The Morning Fog, when Kate sang the line ‘Do you know what, I love you better now’, and the audience erupted into applause. I joined in, perhaps ecstatically.

There was no effect, no theatrical moment, nothing other than the lyric. It was a unique moment in the history of my experience of performance; a moment in which some profound human understanding was collectively grasped, appreciated, and spontaneously and joyously celebrated, almost interrupting the song that stimulated and contained it. It was the relief of the expression of love, of the redemption of love, which quickly is contextualised in the song within family, and the return to family from death or near-death that the song cycle explores. Expanding upon the original lyrics, Kate sang, gesturing toward members of her musical family on stage, and her actual son: ‘I’ll tell my mother, I’ll tell my sisters, I’ll tell my son, I’ll tell my brothers, how much I love them’.

This was not some semi-abstract Lennonesque appeal to universal love, but to the affection, need, bond of family (Lennon, of course, moved in that direction later). And in the wake of that glorious shared applause, I had an epiphany that this was central to what Kate communicates in her art. Home.

After a traditional set of six songs (Lily / Hounds of Love / Joanni / Top of the City / Running up that Hill / King of the Mountain), The Ninth Wave was introduced by a video contextualisation of a distress call to a lifeguard concerning a ship going down into icy sea, but the segue from a straightforward set of songs to ‘performance’ was first announced by one of the band’s percusionists entering the stage space downstage from his kit, as the final bars of King of the Mountain were given, and swinging a rain maker above his head. From then on, the musicians were more or less obscured behind elements of shifting set, screens and groups of actors presenting the narrative of the song cycle. Weather and sea, underwater and under ice, dream, nightmare, delirium were all captured scenically, and a short piece of dialogue between son and father pulled the story of the songs together as theatre, its visual and gestural languages filling the space as the music played behind it all. Only with those first plucked acoustic guitar notes of The Morning Fog did the musicians re-emerge onto the stage, swaying forward, dancing, strumming guitars and tapping their hollow wooden frames. In this way, the stage was reclaimed by them, by the life-affirming music, the harrowing narrative resolving in a return to health, to life, to togetherness. The presence of the musicans in the scenography in this way (and perhaps first in that rain-maker moment) is seemingly deliberate: their presence, their instruments, their expressive bodily synergies with those instruments (man-and-guitar, not just man with guitar), signified life. I suspect that intuiting that as an audience, we were ripe for that out-of-place applause.

Part of the intense value of the whole evening was the sheer joy at not only having an opportunity to finally see a treasured artist performing live when there had to date been no expectation of that, but of having one’s expectations surpassed, and surpassed again as the evening progressed. And that passion for the music in the first place prepares for the pleasure in the live moment. And Kate Bush’s natural humility and charm melted any possibility of the contruction of celebrity infecting the experience. When she first walked on stage with a kind of augmented walk, stepping forward with a spring in each pace, bouncing on bare foot to the beat, the simplicity and unpresuming embrace of singing and performing belied the level of creative burst that was to follow. This is just what she does, and you can’t help but admire that humble lack of show, of self-projection, that then permits us to appreciate the sophistication of the creative imagination to follow not as indulgence, but as play. We might have expected this. I recognise that her work has participated in my understanding of my relationships over the years with women; I don’t believe she has ever self-declared as a feminist, but her inclination to continue doing what she wants to do regardless of how others have tried to steer or define her is perhaps in itself a significant feminist achievement, because it is an achievement beyond gender. Even making this statement perhaps misses its own point. Kate Bush has steered her own course, and all that talk of her as a ‘hermit’ is just a preposterous foregrounding of the rules of engagement for artists in the music industry, rather than a foregrounding of an artist as a person with a life and family who expresses to her own timetable, not that of a market, culture or demand.

Added to the pleasure of finally seeing her perform is the manner in which that music, of course, is woven into our individual histories. Most potently for my wife and me is the bank of memories that connect the Aerial album with our daughter. She came home with us three months after her birth in 2009, having spent the interim in hospital, including extended periods in intensive care. I recall the evenings that my wife would spend bathing her and preparing her for bed, her blood oxygen and heart rate monitor and oxygen pump all part of the night-time routine, cleaning around her gastrostomy, relaxng her with massage on a bath towel on the bed, condensation on the window, Kate Bush’s Aerial pulsing amber into the room. Perhaps this explains my epiphany on family, on home, on the bliss of the domestic in Kate’s music. Perhaps a deeply personal response cannot be avoided. And when, through a story of trauma, death, separation, we reach the moment of realising ‘do you know what, I love you better now’, it all falls into place, the human journey experienced with family.

Before the DawnSo when the show moved from that declaration of love, life, family, home at the end of The Ninth Wave to the expansive, mature palette of another song cycle, A Sky of Honey, we were prepared. We knew our memories contained a bank of tears that might flow at any moment when that music triggered it.

The theatrical arrangement, this time, was different. The musicians were not obscured and, instead of having to emerge from the set, the set would re-negotiate their presence, and transform them. The relationship between the imaginative stage space and the musicians was established charmingly first by the boyish wooden puppet figure who was beckoned by Kate at the piano ‘Over here, over here’ (deliberately or incidentally invoking The Ninth Wave?). He enters the space of the musicians, steps onto their rostra, touches the drum kit encouraged by its drummer, knocks a cymbal, caresses the side of the piano; the life-aspiring puppet in awe of the vitality of music. His negotiations for life through music, and his eventual transformation to independence from a puppet master was a neat parallel to the imagery of art and the artist in relation to the expanse of the natural world. The giant painter’s canvas and the even more giant backdrop to the whole stage that it mirrored, were the location for a series of visual statements about art’s relationship with the skies (life, nature, the organic) it aims to capture. The transformation of the musicians – seemingly through the compelling music – into bird-men suggested a surrender to nature, rather than there being any value in capturing it. The undeterrable stomp of two thick, tall tree trunks into the musicians’ stage space at the end set the seal. Music is nature as art, not nature in art. Finishing with that awe-inspiring leap into the air of a bird-mutated Kate, the collection of images and ideas complemented the music beautifully. If The Ninth Wave had been a constructed theatrical narrative that followed the story of that song-cycle, A Sky of Honey was more of an organic growth around the music, from it, responding to it, augmenting it.

The two encores were well placed to bring us down. The solo piano piece (Among Angels) gave us Kate alone to ourselves, and the final song Cloudbusting (introduced by a few bars of the military drum rattle) was a celebration in stomping, clapping ovation.

We didn’t have the words to explain how we felt in the wake of the show. This is just a first attempt at finding some.

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. rogerdboyle permalink
    September 26, 2014 3:48 pm

    People asked me what I thought of it.
    I said “Read the reviews; better than that.”

    • Mark permalink
      September 26, 2014 6:41 pm

      I wonder if ever an artist of that stature has ever ‘come back’ and surpassed expectations to this level.

      • Anonymous permalink
        September 27, 2014 10:40 pm

        No. No one compares in singular. Perhaps Ingrid Bergman in plural in that forces were holding her out. Gabriel said it: you have to admire the ambition of this work. She has set the bar very very high and I’m in America and haven’t seen it, but I can feel it from here reading the reviews. It is agonizing to have missed this as one who also waited a long time. I hope the DVD comes close to communicating it, and it may be better. Live, I think it would have killed me.

    • September 29, 2014 3:55 pm

      One Twitterer said:
      “You are inside the head of Kate Bush for 3 hours.”
      On that basis it is impossible to criticise in an objective manner – it just is.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    September 27, 2014 9:26 am

    Very beautifully put in words. Thank you.

  3. Hakan permalink
    September 27, 2014 11:21 am

    I tried to temper my expectations going in, but they were naturally sky-high… and then she blew me out of the water with an absolute stunner. The great thing about this text, is that it goes some way to explaining why. The feeling of love towards the end of the 1st part, the interplay of art. nature, elements in the 2nd. Kate reminded us that pop music can not only be pop, but be art… filled with depth of emotion, philosophy, beauty, physicality. Its been a week, and Im still digesting and finding new angles into what I saw.

  4. Paul Gun permalink
    September 27, 2014 11:45 am

    Excellent job. Thank you

  5. September 27, 2014 11:49 am

    Having been twice (17th and 23rd), I haven’t found my words yet. But yours are pretty close. Thank you.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    September 27, 2014 11:58 am

    Wonderful, Mark. What a joy to read. Thanks.

  7. September 27, 2014 12:11 pm

    I’m not sure if words can truly capture the emotion that this experience evoked. People have asked me what it was like, and I have struggled to explain, just saying that it was sublime. It is an experience that I will never forget, and a real highlight of my life to date.

  8. Beverley wiggett permalink
    September 27, 2014 12:43 pm

    I loved how you referred to how very personal the music was to you because it has to be to all of us and those sweet memories you have of your wife and child . ( remember listening to this woman’s work when I was pregnant with my first , he was breech and a big baby and they kept saying my dates were wrong but I knew I was right and the poor kid had a terrible birth and then had kidney disease at 5 ) BUT the joy of sharing Kate with other fans the total feeling of euphoria to be there with them was just so wonderful and moving . ( now I think of Pi when I think of my sweet eldest son he loves his subject which is physics and teaches it to teenagers , equations everywhere , ok not Maths but he does love his numbers and they they run him in a great big circle . Thankyou dear Kate .

  9. sherrie permalink
    September 27, 2014 1:55 pm

    That was a wonderful read. I saw the KT’s fellowship’s second show having travelled from Canada to do so. Your words took me back there, to the Apollo, and I relived the show as I read your piece. I loved your insight that the Sky of Honey segment conveyed that art is nature. I hadn’t though of it bit it fits so well. The show also inspired me to see the beauty in everything and I think that is Kate’s gift, to serve up life even at its most mundane such as washing the sheets, as ‘moments of pleausre’ to us to ‘re-see and ‘re-feel’.
    Since a young adult I have listened to Kate in the moments of my life where inner strength and insight are needed. Listening to Kate is like a prayer or meditation to me and connects me to my soul. The very deep response to her that I had at the show is because she reached that place within me even more strongly. My guess from the response of the people in the theatre around me, her music also has touched them in a similar, private way, during their lives. I believe that the poweful effect that the show had on us is because we were in a way giving over our secret sorrows and struggles while with others who seemed to he feeling the same way; we shared our most personal of selves through her music and somehow came away from it feeling cleansed and renrewed and reconnected with life. It was a religious experience.

    • Anonymous permalink
      September 28, 2014 4:10 am

      I really enjoyed your reply to Mark’s post. I relate to everything you said about Kate’s music and our love for it being in the domain of the intimate, of the private. And there, at Dawn, for the first time, we could allow ourselves to love her in broad daylight so to speak. I too traveled from Canada to attend the opening show. Thank you for helping me put words on my emotions.

  10. Prof Rex Ahdar permalink
    September 27, 2014 9:10 pm

    A terrific review. I am so envious living12000 miles away in NZ. You are a terrific writer too and it is a pleasure to read someone who can write so elegantly.

  11. Katie permalink
    September 28, 2014 12:36 am

    A perfect review for an overwhelmingly beautiful show. Aerial spoke to me also… The album gave me the determination to try for a baby despite having health problems… My daughter now nearly two sings along to “Bertie.” Amoung Angels is the song that continues to give me strength as I lost my mum whilst I was pregnant. I couldn’t breathe for tears when Kate sang it… and I was so glad she gave us the gift of just her and the piano. Kate’s music has given me inspiration and comfort since her career began. Watching Before The Dawn was like reliving all those emotions over all those years and so powerful. I wept throughout and have never experienced anything like it. The song that I have played daily since the 12th of September is The Morning Fog as it was so joyful and honest, from the heart. So you have it exactly… Thank you for your review.

  12. September 28, 2014 2:27 am

    That was a bull-roarer, not a rain-maker (which isn’t an instrument, as far as I know!) being swung by Mino Cinelu, a great percussionist. Very nice essay, though, for sure.

    • Mark permalink
      September 28, 2014 10:10 am

      Thanks for the correction Annie, though it disrupts the meteorogical narrative I thought I saw! But accuracy is important. Also, thanks for naming Mino. From my seat in the circle, I didn’t see which one it was.

  13. September 28, 2014 10:42 am

    I took my wife and 2 teenage daughters and it surpassed all my hopes and expectations. Words still fail me a little but your review does express some of the things I have felt since the show.

  14. September 28, 2014 10:49 am

    Great piece Mark – you rightly identify the animist outlook that’s been present in her work since the whales introduced ‘The Kick Inside’ 36 years ago.
    Kate’s total surrender into the natural world was there in the original ‘Sky of Honey’ – but on stage it was a lot darker – after the joyous and uplifting ‘Sunset’ when she sang the arranque (Brrrrrrrrr-ahhhhh!), Kate’s duet with the blackbird started a slide down into the over-powering, amoral true world of nature, red in tooth and claw.
    As she tiptoed around the stage like a blackbird, cocking her head and shaking her feathers, I heard guffaws of astonishment from those around me ‘What is she doing?’ but then on ‘Aerial’ it became clear – the music wasn’t a contrivance – Kate sings and writes, not because she wants to, but because, like a blackbird at dusk, something deep and visceral makes her (she once described her desire to perform music as a ‘mission from God’).
    Nature broke into the theatre as the performers became birds, the trees smashed into the piano (the instrument most associated with her ‘art’) the puppet broke free and finally, with a look of horror on her face, Kate herself took flight.
    That she had the capacity to come back on, totally alone, after that emotional explosion, sit at the tree-ravaged piano and sing a song of reassurance and love in a voice that combined such power and gentleness was possibly the finest artistic achievement I’ve seen.

    (Sorry I think I need to go and have a little cry about it, now).

    My god, what a glorious human being.

    • Mark permalink
      September 28, 2014 11:05 am

      Thank you so much for the complimentary and complementary comment. I certainly need to think more about the animal in her work. I don’t recall the tree smashing the piano, I mean not literally (that would have become expensive after a month of shows) but it landed behind it quite brutally. Did I miss a detail? Certainly, that connection between nature and music is clearly struck in that moment.

      • September 28, 2014 11:46 am

        Look at the pictures of the final ovation – the tree goes right through the piano (which isn’t a real grand piano at all of course) with a crash. I should know, I was 5 feet from it when it happened and it frightened the bejeesus out of me.

        On the plus side, I was 5 feet from Kate when she sang ‘Among Angels’ like a sad angel herself. Sublime isn’t the word (oh god, don’t start again, you bastard tear ducts!)

      • Mark permalink
        September 28, 2014 11:49 am

        Wow. Obviously obscured from my seat (in the circle). A fantastic effect.

  15. Micheal permalink
    September 28, 2014 12:35 pm

    I have never been so awestruck as I was watching Kate Bush live, and to be only 20 feet away from the stage made it all the better, I couldn’t and still can’t explain how I feel after seeing this wonderful lady performing…..the best show ever…and every time I think about the show I fill up

  16. September 28, 2014 5:29 pm

    Your post is such a wonderful reminder of the concert – I have written about how I got there which for me ended up being nearly as wonderful in that it showed the best that people can be http://jeandrawingaday.wordpress.com/diary/

  17. Massimo permalink
    September 28, 2014 5:41 pm

    Touching. And true. We have a closet in our soul where we try to hide away sufference and pain. Kate Bush found the key and opened it, letting them out. But she did more. She gave the concrete example that sharing our existence with loved people we can survive pain and sufference. I love her better now.

  18. John H permalink
    September 29, 2014 3:35 am

    Wonderful review. I was lucky to see the show too. I genuinely thought i had been teleported to a parallel universe for 3 hours. The show was incredible. The Ninth Wave left me shell shocked! It evoked so many emotions, her gasping for breath, whilst exclaiming “I want to live” sent shivers down my spine. During the dream sequence of Jig of Life, her dream played out on stage, and her body floating in the water on the screen, eyes closed and conducting the instrumental of that song OMG..
    I’ve been to many concerts in my time, but I’ve never ever seen so many people smiling, and as corny as it sounds, so much love in the room! I met people from Australia, Sweden, Amsterdam, Norway, America and Canada! I truly had a wonderful experience.

    Kate Bush is indeed a Maestro. For me, she’s like a classical composer. In fact, that’s exactly what she is.

  19. cmg permalink
    October 1, 2014 4:37 pm

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I attended 8/28 and mulling the performance and entire time in London (I traveled from the US, my brother gifted me this experience). Inspired and inspiring, as all great art is. We feel summoned to do our very best after witnessing such heart and spirit. I felt such a gauntlet thrown down from this experience, to be better, to do better… regards from California

  20. Steph Baker permalink
    October 3, 2014 8:37 pm

    The Morning Fog stood out and lingers for me too. I was so entranced watching Kates every move and expression (6 rows from front) I missed other things that were going on, on the stage, that my daughters told me about later so I am pleased there is a DVD coming out. Thanks for putting into words, what we felt

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