Ever since they were announced in March, the speculation surrounding Kate Bush’s first string of live shows in 35 years has been even more outlandish than Bush’s actual music: She would be doing all new stuff. She would be doing all old stuff. She would sing the entire concert from inside a giant floatation tank.
A prodigious talent who wrote pop masterpieces at 13, and eventually exploded onto the charts with 1978’s Emily Brontë homage, “Wuthering Heights,” Bush only ever played one six-week tour of Europe, 1979’s “Tour of Life,” after which she declared “a terrific need to retreat as a person”, and withdrew from live performance altogether.
Instead, she focused on recording, promoting her idiosyncratic records with ambitious videos, which became staples on the fledgling MTV. Over time, she became one of pop’s great enigmas — a mysterious, exotic yin, to Madonna’s mechanical, overexposed yang. In the mid ’90s, she gave her career up to become a mother, dispensing occasional albums thereafter to moderate hysteria. Her entirely unexplained return to the stage for 22 shows at the Apollo, however, caused ticketing sites to melt down. After all nights sold out inside of 15 minutes, tickets began turning up on eBay for as much as £1500 a pop.
It was a foregone conclusion that Bush, now 56, was going to be afforded a standing ovation merely for turning up on opening night. But when she danced into view leading her five-strong team of backing singers, the roar that filled the hall was ecstatic beyond comparison. Barefoot and sporting a black tasseled frock-coat, the fringes of which swished down by her knees, she was plainly thunderstruck by the response, but still executed a stunning run through the verses to opener “Lily.” Midway through, she shrugged and grinned to the front rows, and the simple gesture sent a wave of euphoria through the room. On 1985’s “Hounds Of Love,” the title track to her most widely-known album, she hit her stride vocally, delivering the gloriously erotic “Oh, here I go! Don’t let me go!” refrain with satisfying bite.
As Bush dipped further into her familiar songbook, it began to seem as if the night was going to be a straightforward hits show, with a seven-piece band behind her and ornate lighting design above. The “Tour of Life” had been a highly theatrical extravaganza, featuring no fewer than 17 costume changes for the singer. She had inhabited the various characters in her songs, and embraced elements of cinema, modern dance and puppetry. Had she seen Leonard Cohen dipping out of retirement, and thought, “Maybe just sharing your songs with people is enough”?
As a fabulous “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” rang out, with its thumping Adam & the Ants-style tribal drumming and Bush’s stirring Faustian exhortations, it seemed reasonable to expect a night of sing-alongs. Soon, however, a crazed man scuttled to centre stage waving a wind tube over his head, and everything suddenly took a turn for the apocalyptic.
On a screen, a male actor attempted to report a ship’s distress signal, only to find the lifeboat service nightmarishly uncooperative. Countless faces around the theatre were agape. What followed was a symbolist dramatization of the entirety of “The Ninth Wave,” the rollercoaster song suite that comprises the entirety of The Hounds of Love‘s second side. Two ominous-looking men wearing fish-skeleton headdresses patrolled the stage eerily, while coastguards with rat’s tails pick-axed Bush from beneath make-believe ice. At one point, a lighting crane whizzed overhead in jaw-dropping imitation of a search helicopter. There was a brief vignette starring Bush’s 16-year-old son, Bertie.
When Bush’s inert body was carried through the stalls, some cheered, others noticeably wept. At almost three times the length of the original music, Bush’s study in human mortality was astonishingly powerful.
At the intermission, it seemed that both boxes had been ticked — Bush the hitmaker and Bush the eccentric. What next?
The answer — which was perhaps somewhat less crowd-pleasing than the show’s first half — was a complete rendition of the nine-song ‘Sky Of Honey’ sequence from 2005’s Aerial. Clearly chosen as a more optimistic counterpoint to The Ninth Wave, the music was drifting, sexy, full of birdsongs and almost Balearic in its glow, accompanied appropriately by the image of a vast red sun on the screen. Here, the theatrical premise, while no less bold, was less clearly understood: a child-sized wooden puppet wandered the stage. Bertie, playing a painter, ably took the spotlight for one number. During one astonishing, dramatic crescendo, Bush soared aloft on vast wings spanning some 20 feet.
Returning alone for an encore, she effusively thanked the audience for being “wonderful, warm and positive,” to huge applause. At the piano, she silenced the room with 2011’s “Among Angels,” before the whole troupe returned for an exhilarating run through “Cloudbusting.”
Magnificently, Bush felt no obligation to explain herself. Her only statement, pre-show, had been a much-publicized request for her audience to refrain from taking pictures. “I know it’s a lot to ask,” she noted, “but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.” Her wish appeared to have been granted, and what an experience it was.