It says something about Kate Bush’s standing in the music world that, perhaps uniquely in the history of long-awaited live comebacks, nobody has suggested — or possibly even thought — that her motives might be financial. After all, this is a woman who’s stuck to her artistic guns ever since, aged 19, she defied EMI by insisting that her first single should be the abidingly peculiar ‘Wuthering Heights’. So, a famous 35 years after her last stage appearance, how on earth could she live up to such a fiercely idiosyncratic career, now regarded with almost universal awe?
Well, at first the answer seemed to be by doing the most unexpected thing of all: serving up a bog-standard rock concert. The lights dimmed, the cheers resounded and on she came to give us a rather workmanlike performance of well-liked album tracks interspersed with the classic hits ‘Running up that Hill’ and ‘Hounds of Love’. At this point, even the choreography consisted of little more than a barefooted Kate shuffling about a bit, and attempting the odd gingerly twirl. But then after a rousing ‘King of the Mountain’ — a definite early highlight — the show suddenly and dramatically changed.
The widespread urge to canonise Bush in recent weeks has perhaps run the risk of sanitising her talent — or if you prefer, making us forget how bonkers she can be. Now, we got a pretty stark reminder. First a curtain fell on which was projected film of a man reporting a shipwreck. Then, the curtain lifted again to reveal Kate on a screen on the back bobbing about on some waves in a lifejacket. This was the cue for a performance of the whole of what used to be known as ‘side two’ of Hounds of Love: a seven-song suite called The Ninth Wave in which a drowning woman either dies or survives (it’s never clear) to the accompaniment of music that combines achingly beautiful ballads, plenty of shouting and an Irish jig.
Here, it was duly turned into a full-scale theatrical spectacle, which took up the rest of the first half. This included — among much else — dancers dressed in fish skeletons, people hacking at the stage with axes and a chainsaw, a brief comedy sketch, waves evoked by flapping cloth and a kind of helicopter thing that swung around the audience emitting dry ice and blinding light. Like everything else on Tuesday night, The Ninth Wave got a huge and heartfelt cheer — but only, you felt, because human beings have yet to agree on an audience response that signifies frankly baffled admiration.
But if that led anybody to expect a second half consisting of one smash hit after another, then they were in for a somewhat naïve disappointment. Instead, Kate gave us the entire 40-odd minutes of another song cycle: ‘A Sky of Honey’, from her 2005 double album Aerial, about the not especially eventful joys of a summer’s day. Again, the choreography was imaginative to the point of mildly unhinged, complete with her teenage son Bertie playing a straw-hatted painter with a grudge against a wooden mannequin. (Rolf Harris, who sang the painter’s part on the original album, seems to have been unavailable.) This time, however, the music was far more homogenous, consisting mostly of the kind of pastoral prog-rock noodling familiar to any viewers of The Old Grey Whistle Test in the early 1970s. Admittedly, a lot of it was lovely — but there was a lot of it. The cycle ended with dancers and musicians wearing bird heads while Kate herself grew wings and took her final bow from several feet above the stage.
And even when we entered encore time, she was in no mood to compromise. After a powerful solo performance at the piano of ‘Among Angels’ from her most recent album, 50 Words for Snow, she led the assembled company in a stirring version of ‘Cloudbusting’ — only the fourth bona fide hit of the night — and made her exit.
Of course, there’s no denying Kate Bush’s brilliance, and here she’s not only in fine voice but gives every appearance of enjoying herself enormously. In theory too, there’s something distinctly heroic about her continuing refusal to play the pop-star game with anything so crass as a careful selection from a back-catalogue that rivals that of any of her contemporaries. (There was, for example, nothing from any album earlier than Hounds of Love.) And yet, in practice, I wonder if even some of the hard-core fans at whom this well-drilled but slightly airless show is so clearly aimed might have left the Hammersmith Apollo secretly feeling that a few more moments like ‘Cloudbusting’ wouldn’t have been such a terrible betrayal of her ideals.