Reconfigures a great artist’s most obscure work into a précis of her entire career.
As the St. Joan of baroque pop, Kate Bush has exerted stylistic influence over generations of arty but commercial-minded artists, not only in the fussy nature of her music but in her abstract, esoteric fashion. Despite this, her reluctance to performance live, barring her early, pioneering 1979 multimedia tour, has left Bush’s imprint off of that realm of ambitious pop iconography. As such, when she announced a 15-date residency at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2014, fans naturally lost their minds, selling out the entire run within minutes and necessitating the addition of seven more shows. And for those lucky few who did manage to attend, they were treated to a lavish expansion of the kind of ambition that Bush showed on her only tour, a colossal event that veered more into opera than a greatest hits package.
The expansiveness of the live shows makes Concord’s three-CD set an inevitably incomplete document of these shows. Though Bush filmed two shows for a video release, she decided to shelve the tapes indefinitely, meaning that Adrian Noble’s art direction, Jon Driscoll’s 3D projections, as well as a host of dancers, puppeteers and even an illusionist are lost to those of us who couldn’t make it to London. It’s a frustrating development, albeit one that does play into Bush’s long-running prioritization of the music over her carefully parceled-out image. If that was the plan, it worked: by tossing out the chance to see her, Bush forces you to consider her talent beyond whatever pithy or even subconscious judgments may be made about her age. Instead, you only get her voice, which long ago shed the occasionally wayward pitch shifts and wails and instead has developed into the kind of rich, thoroughly controlled instrument that can do whatever Bush wants. Even from the opening number, her voice is so fulsome that it makes one wish she recorded more often, not merely for the chance to hear more of her genius but to simply hear what she can do. No one this side of Bruce Dickinson has had their vocal cords age so majestically.
Divided into three acts, the show begins with a loose assembly of songs culled from Bush’s career. Opening with “Lily” from The Red Shoes, a prayer morphs into funky keyboard lines and lurching basslines before Bush kicks it all into the stratosphere. She brings the same energy straight through to “Hounds of Love,” which loses the claustrophobic erotic fear of the studio version as Bush’s voice and her rock orchestra bursts out of any containment. “Top of the City,” also off The Red Shoes, squares the circle of that album’s disparate pull between pure pop and obscure experimentation, producing a pop gospel number that threatens to evoke actual soul from this most arch of artists. The best of the first act may be not an extended version of “Running Up that Hill” but a rendition of Aerial cut “King of the Mountain.” Its stuttering guitar line occasionally opens up to bird’s eye views of the globe before divebombing into squealing riffs before floating back up on Bush’s rising vocals.
The subsequent two acts tackle Bush’s side-length suites, Hounds of Love’s “The Ninth Wave” and Aerial’s “A Taste of Honey.” Here is where the limitations of the audio-only format begin to weigh down the album. “The Ninth Wave,” about a drowning woman whose total displacement of space and time renders fear and hope through an almost Joycean fusion of the concrete and symbolic, is tailor-made for the stage. Unfortunately, the only thing that remains on CD is David Mitchell’s howlingly bad dialogue to script scenes of the character’s family back on shore, fretting over their missing wife and mother. Bush’s own son plays the woman’s child, and, whatever charm that would hold to see, hearing his stiff, functional delivery of one-sided telephone calls and too-contained domestic panic has no impact on disc. Thankfully, most of these scenes are divided out into their own tracks and can be helpfully sequenced out of existence.
But the music, oh, the music. For an artist so renowned for her thorough, perfectionist control over her work, Bush admirably hands off a great deal of time and attention to her backing band, which resembles something akin to Van Morrison’s classic Caledonia Soul Orchestra. Like that group, they fuse Celtic flourishes with fuzzy rock and blue-eyed, brassy soul. Anxious strings bring out the despair of “Under Ice,” while “Watching You Without Me” warms chilled bones with a rubbery, lethargic bassline, even as Bush’s voice recedes into the background as her disembodied spirit regards her family back home. “Jig of Life” reaches its fullest potential, the smorgasbord of Celtic folk tunes swirling into a driving push to live. “Hello Earth” retroactively becomes one of the best and most baffling power ballads of the ‘80s with this group, the constant escalations that suddenly, bracingly drop into Gregorian chants.
This esprit de corps carries over into the less dynamic, more elegant “A Taste of Honey.” “Prologue” is mostly just Bush and piano, but the ambient textures around her gain something for their live, not programmed, production. Omar Hakim’s skittering, gently polyrhythmic drumming on “An Architect’s Dream” suffuses jazzy tension into the legato guitar patterns and Bush’s unhurried vocals. The movements of this section are less distinctive, but when placed right after “The Ninth Wave,” the suite’s warmth and contentment gain additional power, clarifying it as a loose bookend for that earlier composition. This is Before the Dawn’s greatest strength: it reconfigures a great artist’s most obscure work into a précis of her entire career, presenting Bush entirely on her own terms and making her seem, improbably, even more brilliant that we already