Kate Bush Live 2014: What went wrong?

How could it be that returning after 35 years, one of the most gifted artists of our times feels the need to wow the audience with visual theatrics rather than play her wonderful songs?

by O. Shinar (Eventim Apollo, London, Sep 19th 2014)

The news was so outrageous it seems something was wrong: could it be that Kate Bush has just announced a return to live performance, after so many years? Sure, there were some signs of that materializing – she has returned to album making, was seen in public accepting an award and also spoke of a possible return to the stage. But few seemed to have believed her. Kate Bush was famous for being a recluse, content on creating music while shying away from ever meeting a live audience. The ‘Before the Dawn’ concerts have thankfully shattered this conception. Unfortunately, they have also broke other perceptions, in a more disconcerting manner.

Kate Bush did return to the stage, as we all know, working secretly for more than a year on a lavish and intricate stage production, together with some of the most talented people in theater, lightning and special effects. Dancers, singers and, of course, musicians were also part of the menu, as was one special teenager, Kate’s own son, Bertie, who has become a regular fixture in her albums since ‘Aerial’ (2005), almost a decade ago. The show might have never come into fruition without him, notes Bush, and indeed it is hard to miss his many roles in the concert – singing, dancing, playing various acting parts, etc.

Young Bertie’s presence seems to be a plausible explanation for the show immature tendencies, yet when push comes to shove, given the artist in question has time and time again proved to be hands-on with regard to all aspects of her work, including semi hidden etching on her vinyl singles, it should be assumed that, for better or worse, the concerts are a reflection of Kate Bush’s own vision rather than anyone else, including her son.

Yet the show was deeply upsetting for me as it seemed focused on visuals rather than sounds. This has been a great disappointment for me, having spent thousands of pounds travelling with my children to the UK for the concert at the London Apollo. It was natural to assume we will witness some balance between what was important for Kate and what could be expected of her, i.e., singing some of her brilliant musical achievements of yesteryear but also as of late. Songs like ‘In a Coral Room’ or ‘Snowflake’, which are widely regarded among the peak of her work, are rather recent and therefore could have been included in a show which would suggest Bush is still very much a rare musical genius.

However, while the inclusion of many of the ‘Hounds of Love’ songs, including ‘The Ninth Wave’ was expected, Bush has also added obscure songs under the heading ‘Hits’, some of which were never even released as singles, let alone attained popular following.


Theater of Kate Bush Show

Eventim Apollo, London, September 19th 2014

It is possible to explain the omission of the earlier materials, some of which have been played live during the 1979 tour, but Bush decision to completely disregard more recent album such as ‘The Sensual World’ is a mystery. Well, at least somewhat of a mystery until one realizes ‘Never be Mine’, one of the most haunting songs ever recorded by Bush as to be included in the ‘Hits’ section, dropped, possibly at the last moment, due to the length of the show – three hours – one could assume. While this makes sense, in the context of having to shorten a very lengthy live concert, one which has been repeated almost every night during two months in the summer of 2014, the question still remains, why such a brilliant song, the only one from an entire album, was cut, rather than much less known and interesting songs.

"Never Be Mine" in the computer set-list

“Never Be Mine” in the computer set-list (Photo; O. Shinar)

The concert’s final section, the second half of ‘Aerial’, ‘A Sky of Honey’, provided a possible key to understanding the Bush criterion for song selection – visual aspects of the performance seemed more important to her than the sound. While the musicians faded into the background, literally shoved into the far reaches of the giant stage, birds, huge canvasses, the sun and the moon as well as a myriad of other stage antics were introduces in a spellbinding manner, spinning the heads of all present and making sure the musical experience become a soundtrack to some of the most amazing images, such as a huge, slowly revolving, yellowish moon, which was as real as the dancers who shared the stage.

For an artist who chose to transcend the need for tangible contact with the audience for so long, creating a show which included a selection of songs based on visual merit is unfortunate.

I’m probably missing something. Most critics and members of the audience wrote favorably and enthusiastically about the concerts. Many wrote of the Clouds passing us from above, the giant trees crashing on stage, the troop of skeleton-skinned fish patrolling the stage, which become a sea in which Bush drowns during the Ninth Wave reincarnation. Yet few contemplated the fact that the choice of song could and should have been significantly different.

Yet even more regretful was the heavy handed use of tapes and digital sounds rather than real musicians. A single violin player would have done wonders for the aural experience, while a small orchestra would have never been out of place given its extensive presence in the majority of Bush’s albums. Indeed, the songs renditions suffered, culminating in the abysmal omission of the counter melody in the show final song ‘Cloudbusting’. The audience seems content of just hearing the song. I wonder how many have noticed to lack of the delightful line played by the cellos on the album.

What to make of all of this? Perhaps the fear of performing pushed Kate into making such a bigger than life experience, one in which Kate herself is dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the experience.

Kate Bush’s warm and wonderful voice is still very much there. It is still amazingly beautiful, lacking nothing, even if the range is a little more limited than before. Hence, she could have sung with ease most of the post 1985 songs.

For many, including myself, Kate bush is the most brilliant female artist alive today. She is among the most gifted musicians of our time, disregarding gender. When she sings other people’s songs, it becomes clear that her voice is a rare gift: Elton John suggests Kate Bush contribution to Peter Gabriel’s ‘Don’t Give Up’ saved his life. Is there a bigger compliment? Unfortunately, much of her brilliance was lost on ‘Before the Dawn’.

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3 Responses to Kate Bush Live 2014: What went wrong?

  1. Bjørn says:

    I find it completely shocking to read that you refer to her album “Ariel”.
    It’s not some little mermaid number.
    Any Kate Bush fan should know that this album is called “Aerial”.

  2. Steve Sauder says:

    While I respect your well-thought-out review, I couldn’t disagree with your conclusions more. As a musician myself, and a long-time Kate fan, since around the time of The Dreaming (when she first burst into my consciousness), there’s no question that we both love her music and have been profoundly affected by it. But for me, Kate has *always* been a very visual artist – look at the amount of work, and creative effort (and genius) that went into her music videos! Why, the videos for Cloudbusting, Experiment IV, Hounds of Love, This Woman’s Work, etc., were sumptuous visual tours-de-force (and each one of them directed by Kate herself, by the way) that utilized visual and filmic techniques to expand and enhance the sonic world created by the track, not undermine it.

    So I found it absolutely no surprise that Before The Dawn was a highly visual show (as her other stage show 35 years ago at the same venue was too) – the songs were a fait acompli, they’ve existed as treasured little pieces of aural perfection, in some case, for years. No-one at the concert should have been surprised that they didn’t sound precisely like they did on the album – how could they, given the limitations of live performance? Speaking as a composer who’s taken numerous rock songs and arranged them for full orchestra, my objective is never to “copy” the original recording, but to pay homage to it, to hint at it, while bringing out the strengths of the live performers – 7-piece expert jazz-rock musicians, or orchestra. But on the subject of the “visual” aspect of the show, which seemed to disappoint you, I can only say this: if Kate’s musical genius works the way I think it does, the inspiration for the music almost always comes with a visual aspect, in fact, in many cases, the visual idea comes first, and finds a type of secondary expression in the music. I remember she mentioned once in an interview that many of her songs are written as an expression of a film that is playing on the inside of her skull. Given that, Before The Dawn should be seen as an *expansion* of the material she originally graced us with on the various albums these songs originated on, not competitive with, or somehow mutually exclusive with it. I personally relished the often astonishing visual imagery presented on that stage, as a further window into the soul and genius of an artist whose visual creativity is as big a part of her as her unique musical gifts. I think it’s part of what makes her so challenging and brilliant. Your review makes me feel like you would prefer it if she were more one-dimensional.

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