So this is where epiphanies happen, and few people are better placed to tell you about that than Kate Bush. On July 3rd 1973, she came here, to the Hammersmith Odeon, with her brothers to see David Bowie declare on stage that Ziggy was about to die and he was taking The Spiders From Mars with him. In that moment, she cried (as she later recalled, “it looked like he was crying too”) and the dramatic expiry of one pop star acted as the catalyst for another. Six years later, Bush concluded her Tour Of Life in Hammersmith. Between Ziggy’s swan song and what for the longest time people imagined to be her own live swan song, punk had happened, leaving seemingly little impression on Kate Bush. In truth, it had nothing to offer her.
Kate Bush’s love of Bowie had led her backwards to the beginnings of his fascination with mime, dance and conceptual theatre, locating Bowie’s dance teacher and mentor Lindsey Kemp in 1975 and hoofing up from her flat in Brockley to attend Kemp’s 50p open classes in Covent Garden. After two hours which had variously seen her pretending to be a magician, wearing a winged leotard and dressing as a World War II bomber, the final song of her final Hammersmith turn saw her rising through the fog in the guise of Catherine Earnshaw, singing Wuthering Heights into the one of the modified wire coathanger headsets – soon to become standard issue at gigs – that she had specially invented so that she could sing and dance at the same time.
Because, then as now, Kate Bush was the entire fruit bowl all at once. Mere singing could never communicate the tidal surge of creativity that overwhelmed her in the preceding years. As John Lydon (also quoted in this brilliant piece by Simon Price in The Quietus) pointed out, Kate Bush was “too much” for a lot of his friends. Kate Bush was clearly also “too much”, at times, for her record label, whose ambivalence about her relentlessly surprising musical left-turns remained a constant right up until she bitterly agreed to change the title of her 1985 song Deal With God to Running Up That Hill.
In the foyer of the Hammersmith Odeon before the third of Kate Bush’s first shows in 35 years, it’s hard to make generalisations. But I’ll allow myself this one about the guy next to me who, despite never having met me, keeps passing his binoculars to me so I can see what he’s seeing. And the male twentysomething fan who will brave the tube home dressed in a white cotton tunic, black tights, face painted in white and silver, his hair wreathed by leaves and twigs. And the woman who has gone to the trouble of having a dress made just like the one festooned with clouds on the sleeve of Never For Ever. And the woman who rushes from her seat during the encore of Cloudbusting to hand a bouquet of lilies to Bush (who, in turn, receives it between bows). “Too much” is why we came. There’s nothing more antithetical to Kate Bush’s music than sensory temperance. For three hours, it’s like finding out there was a Dolby switch pressed on your consciousness. The moment that Bush, draped in black and barefoot, marches in a soft, shuffling procession, flanked by her five backing singers, you turn it off. You might need it for the journey to work on Monday, but it’s of no use to you now.
She smiles beatifically throughout Lily – the invocation to guardian angels which originally appeared on The Red Shoes and, in 2011, The Director’s Cut – apart from when attacking the top notes, which she does with the phlegm-rattling zeal of a seasoned soul singer. The love in the room is unlike anything I’ve seen at a live show. Given free rein, it would surely result in an instant surge to the stage, but it’s tempered by a deference which extends to uniform acceptance of Bush’s stated no-cameras request. As a consequence, the first three songs are bookended by a total of six standing ovations. Hounds Of Love is exactly what it should be given the passage of three decades: drummer Omar Hakim and perma-grining percussion talisman Mino Cinelu hold back the rhythmic landslide, creating space for a vocal pitched closer to resignation than combativeness. Eighteen months ago, when Bush’s son Bertie McIntosh (then 15) finally persuaded her to return to live performance, the first two people she pencilled in for the project were the lighting designer Mark Henderson and Hakim. Within the opening section, it isn’t hard to see why Bush wanted to assemble her band around Hakim. Running Up That Hill is every bit as unyielding and startling as it was the very first time you heard it: doubly so for the incoming storm whipped up from the back of the stage. On King Of The Mountain, he reprises the freestyling pyrotechnics of his turn on Daft Punk’s Giorgio By Moroder. Everything about King Of The Mountain, in fact, is astonishing. Bush navigates her way around the song’s rising sense of portent with a mixture of fear and fascination that puts you in mind of professional storm chasers. When they’re not singing, her backing vocalists dance as if goading some unholy denouement into action, before finally Cinelu steps into a misty spotlight. On the end of a rope which he demonically twirls ever faster is some sort of primitive wooden cyclone simulator.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all is that this – King Of The Mountain and the preceding songs – is a preamble to the first act. In 1985, as Hounds Of Love was being readied for release, Kate Bush sketched out a putative film script for The Ninth Wave – the 30 minute suite of songs, which shared its title with Ivan Aivanovsky’s 1850 painting of a group castaways clinging to floating debris as dawn approaches. But, as she writes in the programme, “In many ways, it lends itself better to the medium of stage.” She’s referring to the conceit at the heart of The Ninth Wave and, yes, she’s right. What would have been impossibly confusing on film is only occasionally confusing when played out on stage. On a screen, we see the stranded protagonist in her lifejacket in palpable distress, relying on scenes from her past and future to keep her from slipping under. On stage we see those feverish visions played out before us. If Bush’s distress looks unsettlingly convincing on the screen, that might be because the 20ft deep tank at Pinewood Studios in which she had to be immersed for several hours pushed her to method actor extremes: singing live whilst gradually succumbing to a fever which was later diagnosed by her GP as “mild hypothermia.”
With the stage bathed in low blue light, Bush cuts a disembodied presence on screen, singing And Dream Of Sheep, all but unreachable to the singers who impassively assume the role of Greek chorus to her plight. What ensues is heartbreaking, frightening and funny, often at the same time. There’s the seismic din of a helicopter provided some huge piece of cuboid god-knows-what machinery which glides over the audience with searchlights blazing (the voice of its pilot supplied by Bush’s brother Paddy). There’s a blizzard of tissue-thin pieces of ochre paper bearing the excerpt from Tennyson’s The Holy Grail which is also featured on the sleeve of Hounds Of Love. There’s a deliberately mundane sitting-room exchange between her husband (Bob Harms) and son (McIntosh) about a burnt toad-in-the-hole to which she can only bear witness in ghost form (Watching You Watching Me). Then, of course, there are the fish people: skeletal fish-headed creatures that lurk elegantly around the action. That, in 2011, Bush called her record label Fish People – predating the first meetings about these shows by two years – suggests that these guys were probably present on Bush’s very first sketches for The Ninth Wave 30 years ago.
At times you imagine every prog-rock star who reluctantly had their wings clipped by punk feeling a sense of unalloyed vindication at the scenes being played out here. After the release of 2011’s 50 Words For Snow, I interviewed Kate Bush and asked her about recent musical inspirations. I figured that someone must surely have played her Joanna Newsom’s Ys whilst exclaiming, “Look! A kindred spirit!” (they hadn’t) But actually, she probably has no need of new input. It’s increasingly apparent that Bush’s musical hard drive was full by the time she made her first record. As Watching You Without Me modulates into Jig Of Life, I try and pin the musical sense of deja vu to an actual memory. Finally it comes to me. This sort of spectral somnambulant ceilidh was precisely the sort of thing which arty stoners in the early 70s – arty stoners such as Bush’s older brothers – would have sought out in the albums of Harvest Records outliers Third Ear Band. Except, of course, the one thing that Third Ear Band lacked was a cosmically attuned sensualist to act as a smiling Trojan horse to her own avant-garde sensibilities.* And so, here we are. A generation of pop fans suckered by Wuthering Heights, Wow and Babooshka. And we’re watching four people in fish heads wheel in a floating bit of rig illuminated by red flares. In a moment, she will climb aboard before the fish people claim her, carrying her aloft away from the sea, and among us through the aisle before, finally, The Morning Fog. This is perhaps as beautiful as anything we have seen up to this point. Dancers and singers take their partners. and, bathed in golden light, Bush exchanges glances with her fellow players. Everything you have seen in the preceding hour is the result of more than a year of drilled, deliberate meticulous planning. And yet, on the back of such vertiginous terrain, Bush gazes at her fellow performers with the relieved air of a trainee pilot who had to land a Boeing Airbus after the rest of the cabin crew had passed out.
It could end there. It really could. That was a whole show, right there. But on the other side of the intermission, it’s all change once again. Comprising the second half of 2005’s Aerial, A Sky Of Honey emerged from Bush’s fascination with the connection between light and birdsong and then, as she puts it: “Us, observing nature. Us, being there.” Without realising it, with those last three words, Bush may have propelled us to the essence of our connection with much of her most affecting music (The Sensual World, Breathing, Snowflake). The Ninth Wave is really about the miraculous, ungraspable nature of human consciousness. And, if the subtext – intended or otherwise – of that piece is that only we humans can reflect upon what it means to die, then the subtext of A Sky Of Honey is that only we humans can reflect upon what a gazillion-to-one miracle it is to be alive. Us, observing nature. Us, being there.
Up on stage, it’s left to Bush’s son – playing the part of the painter, a role assumed on the album recording by Rolf Harris) – to be that observer. But before all of that, it’s just Bush at the piano for the first time, encircled on the left hand of the stage by her band, with the right side left empty for the ensuing action. Controlled by its puppeteer, a black-clad Ben Thompson, a wooden artist’s model – perhaps the size of a ten year-old child – walks inquisitively around the stage during Prologue until finally it alights upon the singer. As Bush sings “What a lovely afternoon” and the drums come in, it appears startled. All the time, the backdrop shows birds in slow-motion, while the backing singers (increasingly, given what they have to do, “backing singers” doesn’t begin to cover what they have to do, but “chorus” is unhelpfully ambiguous) move gingerly around each other in painters’ garb. A slowly moving sky descends to fill the space on the right. The palette-wielding McIntosh dabs at the canvas with a brush, attracting the curiosity of the wooden model. “Piss off! I’m trying to work here,” he exclaims, while his mum – dressed in an Indian-style black and gold outfit – moves around him in slow motion.
If it’s surprising to see McIntosh rise to the challenges set before him so fearlessly – “A kind of ‘Pan’ figure” – it’s worth keeping in mind that he’s already the same age that his mum was when she started recording her first album. In a voice at least two octaves deeper than the one he used for Snowflake on 50 Words For Snow, Bush’s son bemoans his rain-splattered work on The Painter’s Link (“It’s raining/What has become of my painting?/All the colours are running”). But here, as on the record, there are no mistakes, just serendipity. The colours run and dusk magically materialises; the redemptive downpour brings all the musicians to the front for almost Balearic, flamenco-flecked stampede of Sunset. As a succession of joyous falsetto “Prrrrrraaah!!”s attest, the moments that see Bush at her most unguarded are the ones where she gets to commune with the twenty-odd players around her.
From hereon in, the Aerial segment of the show – co-directed, as is The Ninth Wave, by former RSC honcho Adrian Noble – is an object lesson in sustained rapture. No less a highlight than it is on the record, Somewhere In Between sees its creator transported by the power of her own song and, in doing so, transports you to the fleeting magic-hour reverie it celebrates. There is also a new song, Tawny Moon, for which McIntosh confidently takes centre stage and climaxes by effectively acting as ringmaster to the huge full moon rising from the back of the stage.
Few musicians are more adept at conveying a sense that something good is going to happen than Kate Bush. We know what Nocturn sounds like on record, so a certain sense of expectation is unavoidable. On either side of the stage, we see arrows fired from bows into the firmament, where they turn into birds. For reasons I couldn’t honestly fathom, we see the painter’s model sacrificing a seagull to no discernible end. Over a rising funk that defies physical resistance, Bush makes a break for transcendence and effectively brings us with her: “We stand in the Atlantic/We become panoramic,” she sings, with arms aloft. Like the rest of the band, guitarist David Rhodes has donned bird mask. As Bush is presented with vast black wings, she and Rhodes circle elegantly around each other, before finally, briefly, she takes flight.
Just two songs by way of an encore – which, after what has preceded them, seems generous: Among Angels from 2011’s Fifty Words For Snow is performed solo at the piano, before the entire band return for Cloudbusting. Once again, we’re reminded that, almost uniquely among her peers, Kate Bush goes to extraordinary lengths in search of subjects that hold up that magic of living up to the light for just long enough to think that we can reach it. But, like the beaming 56 year-old mother singing, “The sun’s coming out”, that too dissipates into memory. And, after another 19 performances, what will happen? In another 35 years, Kate Bush will be 91. Even if she’s still here, we might not be. Perhaps that’s why tonight, she gave us everything she had. And somehow, either in spite or because of that, we still didn’t want to let her go.