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Three Songs No Flash

An Ultrahuman: Kate Bush Reviewed Live, By Simon Price
Simon Price , August 27th, 2014 13:22

As Kate Bush plays her first concert in decades, Simon Price looks at her wonderful legacy and reports on a vivid, magical, and overwhelming evening. Image by Ken McKay.

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Does she dance? She dances ON, and damn you for even asking.

After darkness falls at 7.45 sharp, the voice of Miranda Richardson, in character as the titular white witch of "Lily" from 1993's The Red Shoes, recites Vedic imprecations from the centuries-old Gayatri Mantra ("O thou who givest sustenance to the universe, from whom all things proceed, to whom all things return, unveil to us the face of the true spiritual sun hidden by a disc of golden light, that we may know the truth and do our whole duty as we journey to thy sacred feet...") and that song's almost hip hop beat thumps and bumps out into the auditorium, the living, breathing Kate Bush – and yes, this is only the first time that you pinch yourself in disbelief that you're actually seeing her as a flesh and blood human being, and it won't be the last – sashays in from the wings at the head of a casual quasi-conga formed by her backing singers.

A whole mountain of covertly misogynist bollocks has been written in the run-up to the Before The Dawn residency, with much snickering about whether at 56, and inevitably fuller of figure than her willowy 'Wuthering Heights' self, she would still be pulling those Lindsay Kemp-tutored interpretive dance moves. One dinosaur even wrote that to do so would be "unbecoming".

Barefoot, her shoes thrown in the lake some years ago along with any cares about what may be 'becoming', and so softly beautiful that everyone falls hopelessly in love with her in an instant, her face radiates pure joy around the room like a lighthouse beam as she gently pirouettes, her black velvet tassles flailing. Three minutes into the song, there's an Orbison growl and she intones, sotto voce, "this is my space". And her space it is. The night's barely begun, and already, she's owned it. Hammersmith, scene of her last full concert 35 years ago, is her domain again, for 22 nights which sold out, famously, in just fifteen minutes. And if there's ever been a warmer and louder burst of applause at a pop concert, I can't remember it. Her response, amid the clamour, is difficult to make out, but I swear at one point she jokingly asks us "Where have you been?"

Where, indeed. In BBC4's Kate Bush recent documentary, John Lydon perceptively stated that for a lot of his punk friends, Kate Bush was "too much". In two words, he summed up the case against Bush, or at least, the alibi for anyone who ever found her a little off-putting. As a child, she scared me, for reasons largely connected to her too-muchness. Her eyes, mouth, gestures and vocal range were all too big, like the granny-wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, and that, to children, is always going to be unsettling. I would, later, learn to love what had once filled me with fear. Re-immersing oneself in this woman's work is frightening in a different way: it's hard not to be daunted by so much sheer genius within one back-catalogue.

Perhaps it isn't surprising that Rotten's coterie found her unpalatable. Kate Bush, uniquely among the towering icons of the early 80s, didn't come out of punk, but from prog. Inspired by King Crimson and Pink Floyd as much as David Bowie, Stevie Nicks and Roxy Music, and mentored by Gilmour and Gabriel, the multi-chord complexity of her works and the unashamed theatricality of its presentation was rooted in 1973, not 1976. The Kentish soil from which she sprang wasn't that of the Bromley contingent, but that of Soft Machine, Caravan and the Canterbury set, and a century earlier, that of William Morris, whose Red House in Bexleyheath, a stone's throw from Bush's childhood home, was the rural retreat for Rossetti, Elizabeth Siddal and the Pre-Raphaelite set. That unfettered artsyness was the air she breathed, and is the reason Bush should be seen as the last and loudest gasp of the bohemian 1970s, an island of baroque excess amid the tapered strictures of the New Wave.

Her influence upon subsequent performers, particularly female ones, barely needs restating (make your own list), and the same goes for her questing, challenging, experimenting spirit and her commitment to stretching the boundaries of pop. In her early years, Bush was never fully given due credit by a male-dominated press, who scoffed at her as a deluded am-dram princess. Their hairy, hoary heroes were still mining the same old blues-rock seam while Bush was drawing on literary and philosophical influences from George Gurdjieff to James Joyce, imagining an unborn foetus' fear of nuclear apocalypse or empathising with the military mother's grief at her son's flag-draped body bag, and skipping between more musical styles in the space of an album – a single song, even – than most bands dare in their entire careers.

That legacy, arguably, would have been diminished somewhat if her comeback concert had been a cheesy cabaret retread of her greatest hits, a West End-style production of Kate Bush: The Musical. (Not that Before The Dawn isn't theatrical in spades, but more of that shortly.) It's a monumental relief, then, to see her returning resolutely on her own terms, putting on a show which, perhaps pointedly, features nothing from her 1979 setlist, drawing instead on just four albums: Hounds Of Love, The Red Shoes, Aerial and 50 Words For Snow, indicating a refusal to retread her juvenile footsteps and hinting that those are the records which, whether due to recentness of release date or thematic factors, she's particularly feeling at the moment.

Not that she doesn't throw a bone to the hit-hungry. The first act contains a couple of the Whole Story mega-tunes, one of them right at the top of the show. 'Hounds Of Love' ought to attack like a hundred-foot horse with hydrogen bombs for hooves. And it... doesn't, quite. (First night issues with the sound levels, perhaps, and easily tweaked.) But it does provide the first proof that Kate Bush has still got it. "Oh, here I go!", she belts out with Beaufort Scale lungs and, yes, there she goes. After 'Joanni' from Aerial, a tribute to Jeanne D'Arc which shows her inner Catholic schoolgirl (Kate was raised by doctors and nuns, poised between the rational and the irrational), we get 'Top Of The City' from The Red Shoes, and when she hits the big, spine-rattling note ("I DON'T KNOW IF YOU'LL LOVE ME FOR IT..."), any lingering doubts about the enduring power of her voice are vapourised.

That song barely has time to fade when a minor chord on the keyboard causes an intake of breath that seems to suck all the air from the room. 'Running Up That Hill' is one of the greatest songs ever written. The NME once deemed it the greatest of all. The dawning realisation that we're witnessing it performed live, note-perfect and in extended form, is overwhelming.

When that single came out, Bush was only 26, an age at which many of today's hipster darlings can still pose as upstarts, but THEN already seemed like the most demure, mature, dignified, elegant elder stateswoman of pop, exuding utter class among the TOTP trash. And yet, it's filth: a single in which a woman daydreams of striking an inverse-Faustian pact to experience sexual intercourse from the point of view of the male. (Other, more diplomatic interpretations are available, but frankly, any reading of 'Running Up That Hill' which doesn't accept that "Do you wanna know that it doesn't hurt me?" and "See how deep the bullet lies" are about cock is a non-starter.)

Few other artists would consider such a thing. But its parent album was even more extraordinary. Hounds Of Love functioned as Kate's rapprochement with mainstream pop, after the (superb) Aborigines-with-Fairlights weirdness of The Dreaming, and its first side was a hits-fest, but she still found space to fill the whole of side two with a conceptual art statement, The Ninth Wave - a half-hour suite consisting of the inner monologue of a woman who is floating adrift at sea, and imagines herself variously as a corpse trapped under the ice, a ghost in her family home, and a witch on the ducking stool. "They're completely alone at the mercy of their imagination," she once tellingly said of The Ninth Wave's fictional protagonist, "which I find a completely terrifying thing."

It's a piece of which she's clearly still proud, because she performs it in its entirety tonight. After 2005 comeback single 'King Of The Mountain', her percussionist, who looks like a crew member from the Black Pearl (fittingly enough, for the nautical theme of what follows), takes centre stage and literally whips up a storm. Footage of the eye of a hurricane gives way to an interlude in which an amateur stargazer attempts to report a mayday from a stricken boat. The screen falls, and the entire stage has been transformed into the undersea ribcage of a shipwreck (with heavy overtones of the Jonah & The Whale story).

The backing singers, notably including Kate's son Bertie (who, she has said, gave her the strength to make this comeback), now double as fellow victims of the capsized vessel. There are trap doors, scary skeletal fish-people, and an overhead rescue helicopter. There's a deliberately corny scene in which the lost woman's son and husband exchange good-natured banter about burning sausages and during which – turn away now if you don't want spoilers – Bush magically appears in a corner of the room. There's a stunning choral finale borrowed from Werner Herzog's Nosferatu. And the PA's surround sound comes into its own, with the recorded voices of Bush's own family – and Robbie Coltrane – attempting to shake her awake with a matronly "You must wake up, child" and a more affectionate "Wake up, luv." Suddenly, you understand why the show needed a dress rehearsal.

The predictions of hardcore Bush-spotters that the photo on her website of Bush wearing an orange lifejacket prove, then, to be bang on the money. As do the assumptions about the significance of the underwater flora on the gig ticket itself. After a 20 minute interlude, Act two of the show is taken up with another concept piece, this time the A Sky Of Honey disc from Aerial.

The title of that album, of course, is a triple entendre. Firstly, its subject matter is, literally, things that happen in the air. Secondly and thirdly, Bush is both an aerial and an Ariel, half lightning-rod tuning into the elements, half mythical sprite. It's crucial, in the understanding of Kate Bush, to realise that she isn't a total alien like Prince or Bowie. She's one of us, but more so. A heightened version of ourselves, a conductor of the sensual world (incidentally, it's a minor pity that nothing from The Sensual World itself gets played). An ultrahuman.

The bucolic reverie of A Sky Of Honey begins with an enchanted forest, 'real' snowfall, and an almost life-sized wooden artist's mannequin. It involves slow-motion footage of birds in flight, cloud formations developing and the moon rising. The singer-dancer-actors, this time, play skull-headed bird-people, while the Rolf Harris role in 'The Painter's Link' is taken by Bertie (which is probably for the best), who also performs a new song, 'Tawny Moon', inserted near the end of the suite. There are attendees who, after the show, will complain that this section is boring. But, while it admittedly lacks the drama and peril of The Ninth Wave, there's nothing that's boring about the ending: Bush, wearing a giant pair of crow's wings, spreads them wide like a gothic Pygar and – for just a few seconds – flies, as if in an affectionate fuck-you to Faith Brown's famous wire-flying "Wow" pisstake all those years ago.

It's an incredibly emotional evening, but there are no grand speeches from Bush, just a few words of heartfelt thanks for our "warm and positive" response (there have been standing ovations every few minutes, it seems, over the course of a nearly three-hour show), and a moment when, jarringly if correctly, she describes her band - seasoned session men and former members of Weather Report, Mezzoforte, Pink Floyd and Dire Straits - as "shit hot" (it feels wrong to hear Kate Bush swearing, somehow).

She encores by sitting at the piano for 'Among Angels', the closing ballad from 50 Words For Snow, then brings back the band for a marching-paced 'Cloudbusting'. The line "Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen" is redundant: It already has. Another standing ovation. "Does that mean you liked it?", she asks, coy as anything.

Understatement. From Kate Bush. Now there's a thing.

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Aug 27, 2014 2:36pm

Great review. Best I've seen online so far.

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Evan Gould
Aug 27, 2014 3:14pm

Thanks for this review. As one who probably would have been traveling overseas to see one of these shows had I known about it, I really appreciate these details and perspective; the more to imagine myself as fortunate to behold this glory as the Madonna herself.

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Aug 27, 2014 4:26pm

there is nothing even remotely misogynist in wondering if a fuller figured woman can pull off the same moves as she did 35 years ago. It's no coincidence that dancers are slender, and people wondered if Michael Jackson would be able to dance in the run-up to the comeback that never happened. Was that misogynist? No, I guess it was probably racist.

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Aug 27, 2014 5:00pm

I fell in love with KaTe and her art in 1978. Thank you for these words Simon.

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Aug 27, 2014 5:33pm

As everyone else has said, thank you so much for giving the rest of us a chance to experience this. "Do you wanna know how it feels?" Yes, yes, we do. I don't think I'll ever get over missing out on this extraordinary experience.

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christopher rye
Aug 27, 2014 6:34pm

That's a lovely piece of writing, Simon – many, many thanks. Your own aerials are in excellent working order. If I see you around town (as I do sometimes, when I'm shopping) then I may wave spontaneously. Very much looking forward to seeing Kate on 3rd.

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karen again
Aug 27, 2014 6:35pm

In reply to Karen:

Whoops, misquoted my own beloved Kate in my enthusiasm. :) "Do you wanna FEEL how it feels?" We do.

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Will Birch
Aug 27, 2014 6:57pm

I was wondering, but you put me there. Thank you.

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Aug 27, 2014 8:40pm

Agree with Scott, great writing, almost like being there, but only almost, alas.
So great she is playing live again, who would have thought?
Hoping for a blu ray at some point in time.

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Aug 27, 2014 10:37pm

A really pretentious review.

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Aug 27, 2014 11:31pm

Simon - Lovely review.

" it's a minor pity that nothing from The Sensual World itself gets played" - according to both Pitchfork and NME "Never Be Mine" from he Sensual World was in that opening sequence somewhere.

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Aug 28, 2014 8:24am

What a well-written article. Such a beautiful love letter.

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Simon Price
Aug 28, 2014 8:36am

In reply to @ldnhal:

Certain reviewers placed too much faith in the setlist that was circulated by Kate's PR people to journalists, and which differed slightly from what actually happened (as it included "Never Be Mine" and "Moments Of Pleasure", neither of which were played on the night). This confusion even had me doubting myself, so I double-checked with Kate's people and it turns out that I was right all along, and the facts as you see them in this review are completely accurate.

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Lisa Jenkins
Aug 28, 2014 8:41am

Utterly phenomenal piece of writing - and sums it up beautifully [saw her last night] I didn't hear Never Be Mine in there either....I was astounded by the whole thing regardless. Thank you for writing this. Best thing I've read by a long shot.

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Aug 28, 2014 11:23am

Great to read a review of this which seems to be more about what happened rather than what didn't or what was wanted by the reviewer. That's probably why it reads so well to somebody else who wasn't me. Vicariously enjoyed.

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Paul Davids
Aug 28, 2014 6:40pm

I believe the voice of Lilly on the track (and opening of the concert) is actually Kate's spiritual healer, Lilly. Miranda Richardson only came onboard for the movie The Line, The Cross and The Curve. But your piece is excellent sums up one of the great concerts of our lifetime. The woman is a genius. Bertie was great too.

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Aug 28, 2014 7:50pm

In reply to Simon Price:

Thanks a lot Simon, I really appreciate that.

I was scrambling around the web and various playlists was surfacing all the time
(including spoof ones on, though it seems to have settled on the correct version now).
I'll remove "Never be Mine" from my opening night Spotify playlist

@ldnhal (one of the lucky ones, pilgrimage to Hammersmith next week).

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a neunaber
Aug 28, 2014 8:33pm

Good review, except for your odd insistence about the running up that hill meaning. Kate has stated repeatedly that it is about a couple fighting. You can cherry pick a couple lines to fit your theory, but the lyrics confirm her statement

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Aug 29, 2014 1:00pm

At least it looks like you stayed for the whole show unlike when you saw Tom Waits a few years ago and left well before the end. Your written review suggested otherwise. Naughty.

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Aug 30, 2014 9:33am

Great review
Saw show last night
Agree emotional and odd and magical in a way that not much ever is it's these days!
Amazed by respectful audience and also no I phones everywhere! Genius
Prog- tastic

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Aug 30, 2014 11:02pm

Was at the gig last night - best written review I've seen, bravo.

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Aug 31, 2014 7:50pm

This review left me speechless. To love Kate this much and still give a critical assessment of the show. Thank you.
Kate was entirely too much for too many decades ago but, now... I think she will be welcome not to mention, very much needed.

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Arthur Clemens
Sep 2, 2014 12:33pm

Saw the show on Aug 30. We also noticed something off with the sound in the first part. Then the show really starts and no more sound issues... I am convinced that this was deliberate to make the effect of the transition that much bigger. Also, Kate coming up with a microphone in her hand (instead of using a headset)? Nothing is without meaning.

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David Lock
Sep 3, 2014 10:46am

Thanks, great review. I actually loved The Sky of Honey part.
Listening to Kate with the projections of birds in flight in high definition was spectacular. It provided a great counterpoint to the dark brooding Ninth Wave section.
Cloudbusting too was incredibly emotional.

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Sep 8, 2014 5:36pm

I usually love reviews on Quietus and I adore Kate Bush ...but where on earth did you get Miranda Richardson as the voice of Lily? It isn't her! it's actually a woman named ...Lily. She was a 'discipline' of Dion Fortune and helped Kate through a very difficult time in her life. Come on, album credits aren't hard to check and should be a prerequisite to music journalism :/

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Paul Murphy
Sep 9, 2014 9:35pm

In reply to :

Excellent review - you really captured the event beautifully. And of course Running Up That Hill is about cock.

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Jimmy Bansberg
Sep 15, 2014 8:07pm

I was there august the 26th. An ultrahuman: like that very much. Comeback? She never went away, has been here all the time, right under my skin. Still evolving, she's just in another phase. Her best years still to come ...

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Oct 1, 2014 11:14am

Count me as dissapoint. Surely she was talking to me when she noted that "some of you have come very far to see this show" (Nevada, indeed.) While the first set held interest, the second was a bunch of narcissistic self-indulgence--I felt like she abused the power and trust that her fan base has given her. Simple things maybe, but sitting down for the encore and playing Lionheart in lieu of Among Angels would have brought the house down. To be sure, during Cloudbusting I felt the structure of the Hammy resonate, so perhaps there was some warning to the artist not to take the level of the evening up too high to avoid serious structural damage.

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Oct 5, 2014 11:12am

In reply to Simon Price:

Hi Simon. Firstly, thank you, this is a lovely review. I was also there on the opening night and went again on Sept 26th (power-cut night!) There were many subtle differences between the two. I realised after the Sept performance how nervous she was on the first night, but only by seeing how much she was enjoying herself/moving around/smiling and even skipping around the stage! However, I somehow have a memory from the first night that she sang 'Never be Mine'?! I remember the words 'this is where I want to be' ... and thinking 'yes'... No one made her do this, what we're seeing is all because she's really ready to share it. Have I gone mad?! .... Quite possibly, as I was so entranced on that first night that I don't remember the puppet coming to life, either!! Any thoughts would be appreciated! All the best, Claire

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Dan Stevens
Mar 26, 2016 6:14pm

Wow, I was just listening to the Kick Inside and was wondering if Kate would ever do another show and it looks like I missed my opportunity. There are some events in life you really regret missing. Simon, thank you for attending and sharing your experience.

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