Kate Bush’s return for her first full shows (at the Eventim Apollo in London through October 1) in 35 years was as unexpected as it was idiosyncratic. As we now know from the elaborate program sold at the shows, plans for the production entitled “Before the Dawn” had begun in March 2013, yet no word of them leaked out until a year later, at the time the shows were announced. And from March 2014 until opening night, August 26, 2014, just one more scrap of information became available; that the show’s “logo” — a picture of Bush wearing a life vest and floating in the water — was a reference to her song suite “The Ninth Wave” from her 1985 “Hounds of Love” album. Otherwise, no one had any idea what the show would actually be like.
So there was more than the usual amount of speculation and anticipation about the event. But there were some clues. In a 2005 interview with “Mojo,” Bush noted how unhappy she was with some of her earlier work (“I really didn’t like my second record,” she said about her 1978 album “Lionheart”), and her re-recording a new vocal of her first hit, “Wuthering Heights,” for the 1986 greatest hits package “The Whole Story” also suggests a dissatisfaction with her previous accomplishments. Of course she wouldn’t do anything from her first albums; that would be like getting up on stage and reading your high school poetry. And the inclusion of “The Ninth Wave” was a clear indication that the show wasn’t just going to be a concert; it would be a theatrical production.
But “Before the Dawn” did indeed start out like a regular concert (and this writer attended the shows on September 10 and 13). After some soothing synthesizer and the spoken word intro to “Lily” (from her 1993 album “The Red Shoes,” her highest charting release in the US, reaching #28), Bush’s crack band launched into the song proper, Bush then making her entrance, attired in black, her bare feet slapping to the rhythm as the crowd leapt to their feet in the first of many standing ovations of the night. Of all the songs in her catalog, who would’ve guessed that Bush would open with “Lily,” hardly one of her signature songs? Did the opening lines, “Well I said ‘Lily, oh Lily I don’t feel safe,’” reflect her own trepidation about returning to live performance? That wasn’t evident in her vocal; when she wailed on the line that leads into the chorus, “Protect yourself with fire,” you find yourself thinking: when did Kate Bush become such a terrific blues shouter? Throughout the show, her voice proved to be stronger than ever: richer, deeper, and more powerful than in the years of her initial breakthrough in the late ’70s.
There were other unexpected song choices in this first section as well: “Top of the City” (also from “The Red Shoes”) and “Joanni” (a nod to Joan of Arc, from 2005’s “Aerial”), mixed in with the huge crowd pleasers “Hounds of Love” and “Running Up That Hill.” Then, following a stirring “King of the Mountain” (a tribute to Elvis, also from “Aerial”), the multi-media aspect of the show kicked in, as with a loud “whoosh!” confetti rained down on the crowd (each piece printed with a verse from Tennyson’s poem “The Coming of Arthur,” containing the phrase “the ninth wave”), and a film popped up on the screen behind the stage with an astronomer calling in a distress signal from a sinking ship, setting up the “Ninth Wave” segment.
Bush herself was then seen on the screen, singing the first number of the suite, “And Dream of Sheep”; as the program explained, what happened on the screen was meant to be reality, while the stage action was fantasy. It was an epic visualization of a woman lost at sea, complete with a roaring helicopter overhead, a witch hunt, and a somber funeral procession bearing Bush’s body through the audience toward the end (though her actual rescue is implied in footage on the screen — that’s the “reality,” remember — of a hand reaching down to clasp Bush’s and pull her from the water). The only misstep was an awkwardly wedged-in scene between a father and son watching TV at home while unaware of the agonies the mistress of the house is going through (it’s meant to be a set up for the song “Watching You Without Me”; the son is also played by Bush’s actual son, Albert “Bertie” McIntosh).
A calm, reflective “The Morning Fog” brought the first act to a close. Act 2 provided the perfect counterpoint to the dark themes of “Ninth Wave” — the brilliant, shimmering “A Sky of Honey,” the (mostly) languid song suite from “Aerial.” “A Sky of Honey” has even less of a narrative than “Ninth Wave,” taking you through a day from afternoon to sunset to night to the new dawn. Birds and flight are integral themes of the piece, with images of birds in flight shown on the screen, a soaring contrast to the stage bound action, at least initially. The music was lyrical and light in tone, while the staging for this part of the show was more impressionistic, the meaning more elusive.
Bertie, playing an artist working on a painting that mirrors the changing colors of the day, was given his own moment in the spotlight with a new number, “Tawny Moon,” giving a remarkably confident performance for someone who’s only 16. The other primary “actor” is a life size wooden artist’s model manipulated by a puppeteer that roams around the set as if rummaging in someone’s attic, until it alarmingly breaks free at the end, during the exhilarating musical build up in the concluding song of the suite, running in an attempt to escape, only to be met by Bush taking flight, her arms morphing into bird’s wings. Blackout. Cue rapturous applause.
The encore was again a study in contrasts. First Bush sat at the piano and played the delicate “Among Angels” (from her last album, 2011’s “50 Words for Snow”). Then the audience finally got their “Hey Jude” moment with the rousing “Cloudbusting” (from “Hounds of Love”), everyone on their feet and singing along; the perfect emotional release for the end of the show.
“Before the Dawn” is a triumph because it’s Bush presenting her work in exactly the way she wanted to. Her fans would’ve loved seeing her do anything of course, and a straightforward concert would certainly have been enjoyable. But Bush chose to challenge her audience — and herself — by creating a unique entertainment that would take everyone on a journey and continue to resonate long after the applause died away. And by that standard, “Before the Dawn” was a hands-down winner.
Act 1: “Lily”/”Hounds of Love”/”Joanni”/”Top of the City”/”Running Up That Hill”/”King of the Mountain”/”And Dream of Sheep”/”Under Ice”/”Waking the Witch”/”Watching You Without Me”/”Jig of Life”/”Hello Earth”/”The Morning Fog”
Act 2: “Prelude”/”Prologue”/”An Architect’s Dream”/”The Painter’s Link”/”Sunset”/”Aerial Tal”/”Somewhere in Between”/”Tawny Moon”/”Nocturn”
Encore: “Among Angels”/”Cloudbusting”