Kate Bush live: The theatre’s already in the music (a short screed)

On Wednesday evening I was at the penultimate Kate Bush gig. I went without expectations, hoping only to experience whatever it was that Bush, whose songs I used to play obsessively on the piano as a teenager, chose to present to us. To give myself over to the moment.

But, of course, five minutes in, found myself blindly scrawling notes all over the book I happened to have with me.

At times the show was immensely powerful, immensely moving, *punch*-moving. It’s not just that you’re in tears; it’s that the contortions your face conspires to achieve seem to involve new combinations of muscle groups, and leave you grimacing like a gargoyle.

At times it was just bad.

Let me try and explain myself.

(By the way, the novel I’m writing now, to follow up ‘Randall’, which was about contemporary art, is about pop music, and so this idea is very much on my mind: of what expectations an audience might have of a live show, and what duty the artist might feel they have towards those expectations. Was it Bush’s job to give us what we want? Or our job to accept what she creates/offers? Or some compromise between them?)

Bush’s voice, the music, were everything you might have hoped. It’s not that she was in the room; it was being in the room with the music.

(And of course, this is highly personal – and yet also not: if you took a straw poll of what people wanted to hear, you’d get what? One: ‘Wuthering Heights’ (bad luck) and Two: As much of Hounds of Love as possible (lucky you).)

Hearing/seeing/experiencing her sing ‘Running Up That Hill’ and ‘Hounds of Love’ was like being hit like bullets that had been racing towards you for years, decades. Certain lines jumped down off the stage and rampaged across the heads of the audience: lyrics I’d heard thousands of times, made vivid, made crucial.

“Tell me we both matter, don’t we”

That, in particular, was a dagger blow to the body. What she put into it, added to her intuitive understanding of what the music (her music) was doing behind her, drove the song to new depths – or heights – of expressiveness.

(She sang barefoot. She only played piano for one song, a solo encore. ‘Among Angels’ from Fifty Words for Snow. It was lovely to hear.  It’s a terrible song.)

I’m listening to ‘Running Up That Hill’ now, on headphones, as I type, and it’s nothing, nothing like as powerful as it was in that room. It sounds insipid. It may never have the power it had before. It’s a song made to be played live. There it was living, growling, thumping. She whipped it up, whipped it into shape. It took over the room. There was no room for the room in the room. It was all song.

The backing vocalists were a big part of it. They did their job brilliantly. (The backing vocals on that album are, after all, hugely important.)

(The backing vocals to ‘Hounds of Love’ that were, very nearly, yapped – delightful.)

At other times the music was too much – the drums in ‘Running Up That Hill’ are exemplary, archetypal – why add a second percussionist? Why a second guitar? It’s an electronic song. Why all that extra instrumentation? Just because you could? Because you were worried your voice was not enough?

(I remember this from seeing Leonard Cohen live, too. I’m Your Man is an album that does not need fleshing out.)

“And I’ll take my shoes off / And throw them in the lake / And I’ll be two steps on the water”

Again, soul-punch. Bush is a soul singer. That much was clear from the gig. [Add: Especially on ‘King of the Mountain’, which – literally – whipped up a storm.] But she is a soul singer singing lyrics that sound like they’ve been found, as fragments, in some medieval manuscript by an unknown poet.

She has softened, certainly, over time, and that is her right, as an artist, surely. But Aerial – by which I mean A Sky of Honey – thrives in the happy coincidence of music and voice. The lyrics are neither here nor there, there is nothing to rip you in half. I love that disc and the moments of euphoria it builds were replicated on stage. And yet, and yet, it was too wholesome.

Twice in the show the band members all walked to the front, playing their instruments, bringing the music to the audience, parading their authenticity. At the end of the song ‘Aerial’, and for ‘The Morning Fog’, another moment that had me bust open, with its delicate, tripping net of notes, its catharsis. But theatrically it was cheap, all the same. Like something from a bad musical – a cheap, simple ploy.

The music, the songs, and the respect in which we / I hold it, them, Bush herself, deserve something better.

And so I come to the bad news. The two theatrical sections that made up most of the show – the whole of The Ninth Wave, before the interval, and the whole of A Sky of Honey, after it – were, theatrically, a disaster. (And if you’d asked me what I wanted from this concert, I would have said The Ninth Wave, plus those two songs from the first side of that album, plus A Sky of Honey. I got what I wanted, and it wasn’t what I wanted.)

How to put this delicately:

Huge silk sheets laid on the stage and wafted about from the edge to represent the sea.

Stage hands dressed in black with fish skeleton heads.

In A Sky of Honey, the band wearing bird skull masks, like something from an Anton Corbijn shoot.

I won’t mention, from The Ninth Wave, the scenelet of the family at home, waiting for the drowning woman to come home for dinner. Nor the filmed vingette of a man calling the coastguard to report an intercepted distress call of the sinking ship.

I won’t mention the preacher in ‘Waking The Witch’ – turning something that sounds on record like an outtake from The Exorcist to a pat stage preacher, yawn yawn.

I will mention ‘Under Ice’, which was good – the final cry “It’s me” far more desolate, and desperate, that on record.

I won’t mention the character of ‘The Painter’ in A Sky of Honey, who sloped around the stage done up like the worst kind of milk-and-water, Laura Ashley Van Gogh, completely detoothed, completely anaesthetized – Van Gogh as a Sunday painter, dabbling in colour like it was a mere pastime.

It was, frankly, an insult to the idea of painting.

I will mention the back-projected video of birds in flight.

I absolutely won’t mention the new song ‘Tawny Moon’ inserted into A Sky of Honey, and sung by Bush’s son.

Again, she has softened, and that is her right, but it was the otherworldly edge to her music that drew us here in the first place.

In short, the dramaturgy – to use an unfashionable term – was, at times, wince-inducingly bad, in concept like something you’d expect to see in a village hall community theatre production.

It made literal, make concrete, made obvious what on record is elusive, evanescent, darkly suggestive.

Not to mention that The Ninth Wave is a complex studio production, that twists its material through a complicated mesh of electronic and acoustic music, the experimental and the traditional both at the service of the artist’s vision. On stage, ‘Jig of Life’ and ‘The Morning Fog’ worked, but not ‘Watching You Without Me’, not ‘Waking the Witch’.

Now, I go to the theatre far less than I used to, but I do know that this was dated, and that there are people out there pushing stage work in interesting, provocative directions. This was like something designed by someone who hasn’t been to the theatre in 20 years.

(I’ve just checked online, and those dramatic interludes were written by novelist David Mitchell, while Adrian Noble of the RSC was involved in the dramaturgy. I will let both those facts stand.)

Oh, Kate, Kate, Kate, I wanted to say. The drama is already there in the music. It was the music we wanted, not this cheap, bad, dated Am Dram claptrap. Next time, trust yourself, trust your music, and give us a good, old-fashioned concert.

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11 comments

  1. Joanna G

    Are you seriously a writer? Very hard read, little fact, too many useless brackets (do we really need to know all this?) lots of weird assumptions and too long. Sorry you did not get what you wanted. I did, even more than that. Some parts might have been a bit cheesy, I agree, but that is what Kate has always been like. That’s her charm. And seeing what she saw all these years was worth any money and any effort. Pure bliss!

  2. Rosie Barclay

    Well there was always going to be one but I don’t care. I loved it. It was brill and super and dooper and I cried and I think about it a lot. I have my two pieces of confetti framed and my tee shirt as yet unworn (don’t want to spoil it) and my memories. And why be so rude towards people who do Am Dram. I do Am Dram and it’s great fun.. that was very snobbish and a tad stereotypic. My guess is this person is a wanna be writer who thinks they are better than they are or I would have heard about them being your average Joe Public.

  3. Brian

    Jonathan you must travel through life, daily let down by our inability to touch perfection. That concert was as good as I have seen in many years , and I feel I’ve seen the best artists of the last 35 years.Kate Bush is not above criticism,just don’t pick fault with what she is , it’s like criticising you for being a man.

  4. Veronica

    I say this with regret, but your ‘review’ just makes you sound like you’re too cool for school. I agree with Brian above, what I saw at the Apollo was totally in tune with what Kate Bush is all about, and in my opinion fantastic. Kate Bush pushes the boundaries, and in her honesty you get moments of cringe. That’s a human being for ya. You are not above that either, I cringed reading your writing too.

  5. Retrocosm

    But there is something sort of am-dram about Kate Bush, there always has been and always will be. That doesn’t however diminish from the music.

    It would seem you have become too accustomed to the gloss and perfect production values of Hollywood and the modern music industry, both of which now churn out little more than bland and tedious repetition.

    Give me Kate Bush any day of the week over such banality.

  6. Suli

    very sad you got to see the show, when someone who can appreciate that godly spectacle could’ve been there in your place.

  7. Brian Wernham

    Jonathan,

    I respect your opinions, and it is good to read a review from a fan who knows the material. And yes, some of the set designs might not surprise a regular Royal Opera House attendee.

    But: I was not disappointed at all. Particularly interesting is the ambivalence in the arc of the show. Did Kate get rescued, and reunited with her family? Or did she die and go to heaven?

    What does the title “Before the dawn” refer to? Her good luck in being rescued, or the final song where she undergoes her transmogrification at sunrise?

    This is the ambivalence in Ivan Aivazovsky’s painting, which seems an obvious inspiration – here it is, and look carefully at what the man is holding:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ninth_Wave

    Is it dawn and they are about to be rescued? Or is it sunset and they are about to die?

    P.S. I would have preferred ‘Sensual World’ to ‘Top of the City’ in the set list

    P.P.S. I went 4 times just to be sure I liked it. I did.

    Brian

  8. andrew Owen

    What a sad summary of the show. I saw the show on the 30th September and loved it. I wish that few critics got to see the show. It isn’t the fact that all should have liked it. But many would have loved to have seen it without earning money to air their so called critique. A horrible way to sum the performance

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