Kate Bush: Before The Dawn Live

Prog's take on Kate Bush's long-awaited return to the stage...

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As you’ve doubtless heard by now, or may have been fortunate enough to witness yourself, this was one of the all-time great comebacks. Musical event of the year? Musical event of the 21st century so far wouldn’t be overstating it.

Nobody thought Kate Bush would return to the live stage after 35 years’ absence. In the interim, her 1979 Tour Of Life has assumed near-mythical proportions. Before The Dawn gives us a deeper understanding of that myth.

The spectacle embraces modern technology and stagecraft to raise Bush’s unique eclecticism – song, film, costume, lights, props, magic and high drama – to another dimension. More than a rock gig, it’s a sensual sound-and-vision extravaganza. It takes flight. Yet for all the razzle-dazzle, it proves intensely moving. At the centre of the whirlpool: that voice, richer than ever.

On the opening night of the run, the applause as Bush and band walk on is deafening. Luckily our hearing returns to register that the 56-year-old, barefoot, wearing black, is singing Lily, Hounds Of Love, Joanni, Running Up That Hill, Top Of The City and King Of The Mountain. It’s a conventional – if uncommonly adept – set-up for this introductory spell, the musicians (two guitars, two keyboards, two drummers, bass, five backing vocalists) vigorous yet smooth. We acclimatise to the fact that Kate Bush is onstage, confident and potent.

Then comes the evening’s pinnacle: the ground is swept from beneath our feet and things get giddy. The Ninth Wave is performed: an epic production, almost an opera. The narrative is enacted, gliding from film of a floating-in-water Bush, singing in a life jacket, through the tale of a woman lost at sea as her life flashes before her. This includes stunning trickery (the stage becomes the sea bed, peopled by fish skeletons and other surreal creatures); visuals not witnessed since Pink Floyd’s stadium heyday (a lighting rig posing as a helicopter swoops in and out of the crowd, emitting lasers and voices); and some distinctly odd acting cameos (Kate’s son Bertie plays prominent roles).

At one point Kate appears from nowhere, Houdini-like, in a mock living room, complete with sofa, lampshade and TV. In another scene she’s rescued from beneath the ice, in a hole carved from the stage. There’s a jig, there’s a wake as the fish-people carry her away, and there’s catharsis. Everyone emerges for the intermission blinking, a bit speechless and completely overwhelmed.

Clearly, performing The Ninth Wave is something the singer’s envisaged for a long time. You have to deduce she feels it’s her masterpiece. The total absence of any early-career hits here may bother some (those who wanted Wuthering Heights or Babooshka have come to the right venue in the wrong decade), but this is a legacy-redefining appearance by pop’s Maria Callas. There can never again be any argument that she isn’t prog.

Can the second half live up to the first? Almost, if not quite. Giving us A Sky Of Honey (the second disc of Aerial) in full, it’s (relatively) a more relaxed affair. Loaded with imagery nonetheless – birds, paintings, moons, mannequins – it ripples through its course, Bush in exquisite voice, her musicians dextrous, until its extraordinary crescendo. Now the rhythms get manic, guitars squeal, and to top this chaos of multifaceted motion, Bush grows wings and soars – albeit momentarily – into the air. The audience gape.

After she thanks us profusely for our “warm response”, there’s an encore of Among Angels performed solo at the piano, followed by a euphoric full-band singalong of Cloudbusting. The crowd are still roaring five minutes after the house lights have gone up.

‘Big concept’ shows like this have hidden away since Bowie’s Glass Spider tour took a kicking. It may be that Kate Bush has brought mannerisms often reductively labelled as prog back to mainstream acceptance. Or it could just be that Britain’s most gifted female star can do anything she wants, such is the love and adoration displayed here. The young girl who once yelped ‘Wow’ is now a mature woman confirmed as the genius godmother of art rock. Thirty-five years on, the moment is hers again.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.