LONDON – Thirty-five years after her last concert appearance, Kate Bush is back live, and it’s like she never left the stage.
Bush rocketed to the top of the charts in 1978 with “Wuthering Heights,” a lush, love-it-or-hate-it, penned at the tender age of 18, based on Bush’s loose interpretation of the Emily Bronte novel — naive, heady romanticism in distilled form that only a teenage girl blessed with genius was capable of summoning.
The out-of-nowhere smash launched an eccentric, much-lauded career spanning 10 studio albums and inspiring unusual devotion among a fan base that treats her like a white witch. As the records stopped coming she came to be unfairly tabbed a recluse, which explains the shock and joy that accompanied her announcement of her current London shows.
She’s obscure in the United States, but both Tori Amos and Lady Gaga have claimed her as an influence. Shy without being the least bit self-conscious, her musical persona is idiosyncratic, ethereal, bewitching, and unclassifiably bonkers, a hammy mix of theatrical, dance, and mime-influenced performance easy to ridicule but which has compelled and fascinated two generations of fans.
Prodigy Bush had been writing and performing for years before her first album The Kick Inside in 1978. Bush (politely, no doubt) fought her record company to release “Wuthering Heights” as the first single, which cut like a velvet carving knife through the grimy punk and sterile new wave of the time and spent four weeks at #1.
I snagged a golden ticket for one of Bush’s month’s worth of instantly sold-out shows at the Eventim Apollo in the London neighborhood of Hammersmith. The three-hour, 25-song extravaganza, comprising two song cycles, attracted an attentive theatre-type crowd, who watched a fittingly theatrical performance divided into two acts.
Given what I know about Bush’s more…devoted fans, the portion lucky enough to secure tickets this evening looked surprisingly conventional, with relatively little Renaissance Faire gear or visible tattoos. Befitting Britain’s sitdown concert culture, even the standing ovations were mannered, sitting quickly back down to avoid blocking the view.
They clearly held her in awe. And why not? Note-perfect from the moment she sashayed on stage barefoot from stage left, backup singers in tow (they would don fish skeletons, rescue gear, and bird masks as the show commenced), the audience loved her and she loved them back, in her own reticent way.
While no longer the lithe dancing sprite that launched a million posters of herself clad in yoga gear, she still commanded the stage in a complex, highly choreographed show, marshaling an army of dancers, musicians and singers, and a rather distracting puppeteer, no doubt worked to an inch of their respective lives by Bush, the world’s nicest control freak, to make sure it all went precisely as she’d imagined it (save a drapery trapped in the rafters that was either a failure to launch or the world’s limpest ghost). Bush has said “I’m the shyest megalomaniac you’re ever likely to meet.”
Bush eschewed her big early hits, and all but a few of the songs came from just two albums: The double-album Aerial and her U.S. breakthrough Hounds of Love, both dramatized by film clips, theatrical skits, and pantomime.
Obsessive literalness remains Bush’s creative downfall — the stage lights dutifully went red when the lyrics mentioned the color, and when she spoke of things to the left and right, she pointed her finger like a pantomime character. When her son Bertie (fine as a snappish painter) sings about getting blisters while trying to paint a beautiful moon, it’s no surprise that the performance comes complete with easel and said moon. She’s an artist in her own bubble, for better or worse. Bush will never go out of style because she was never in. She’s a retro artist not in the reheated sense, but rather because one suspects she’d be more at home as a cohort of Alfred Lord Tennyson (“The Ninth Wave” was inspired by a Tennyson poem, and his words were inked on the slips of golden confetti that ended Act One).
The reception to Kate’s shows from fans and jaded critics alike has bordered on the rapturous, so it’s with some trepidation to confess I could have done with less of the abstract child-size wooden puppet that mooned about the stage in Act 2. Fortunately Bush’s voice, a four-octave marvel still clear as a bell after 35 years, pardons any excesses of whimsy.
And sometimes the whimsy works, especially when it ceases being whimsical: The costumes put in mind David Lynch, and a transformation near the end involving a blackbird wing, accompanied by a non-Bush like psychedelic guitar rave-up, added the salt of menace to a dish that leaned heavily on treacle.
The closing sing-along to “Cloudbusting,” one of her prettiest hits, released the audience from the strictures of Bush’s set, setting them cathartically swaying in the aisles while bellowing out the song’s war-chant chorus, before sending everyone off happy and sated into the Hammersmith night.
Coming this Wednesday at PJ Lifestyle: Clay’s guided tour through Kate Bush’s 10 studio albums…