“The most magnificent spectacle ever encountered in the world of rock,” Melody Maker called Kate Bush’s first stage show in 1979. Using magic, mime, and video, the Tour Of Life was unlike anything seen before on the concert stage and in many ways pioneered the dynamic multimedia concert shows so standard today. Bush intended to follow the Tour Of Life with a couple more records and another stage tour. But around the same time, she began taking over the production of her own records (a slow, involved process that, again, produced pioneering work) and instead channeled the visual and performance aspects of her art into directing and starring in her own music videos.
Thirty-five years and eight albums later, in 2014 Bush announced her return to the stage with 22 dates at the same theater where her last tour ended, London’s Hammersmith Apollo. A multimedia performance in three acts, Before The Dawn recasts songs from her post-’85 catalog into a new narrative based around the joining of two conceptual pieces, “The Ninth Wave” from Hounds Of Love and “A Sky Of Honey” from Aerial. Unlike the Tour Of Life, Before The Dawn will not see the release of an accompanying video, with Bush stating she intends for the live audio to stand alone. A booklet included with physical copies offers some insight into the experience: elaborate staging including puppetry, mask work, and 3-D animation. And the sole video release, for “And Dream Of Sheep,” is the same one that played during the show.
Act I begins with a spoken prayer and, in a sense, exists as a prayer itself, wherein songs like “Lily” and “Top Of The City” invoke the care of angels and the fortitude of saints (“Joanni”) as the journey begins. The act sounds like a straightforward rock concert, with the audience agog and Bush thanking them between songs. Vocally, Bush is confident and composed, hitting what iconic runs she can with precision and expertly reworking elsewhere to accommodate her matured voice. The seven-piece band and five-person chorus somehow manage to make songs like “Hounds Of Love” feel even more massive than their original recordings.
The energy of the theater establishes a powerful emotional atmosphere, but it’s not until the very end of Act I that any narrative emerges on the record. The act primarily works as an easing-into, where the audience can celebrate beloved songs that have never seen the stage and Bush can slowly transmute from Kate Bush, long-missed art-rock icon, to the nameless protagonist of Before The Dawn. Likewise, songs can take on new meanings: The familiar refrain “The wind, it blows” that ends “King Of The Mountain” here whips up the massive storm at the center of the story.
Beginning with a call to the coast guard to report a ship at peril in the storm, Act II is a slight reframing of “The Ninth Wave.” It tells the story of a woman lost at sea who fights to make it through the night with help from visions of her life—past, present, and future. On Hounds Of Love, this was a powerful suite of some of Bush’s best songs ever, and here it remains mostly intact, with bits of monologue and dialogue expanding the narrative. Wisely, the audience is edited down to be minimally invasive for the last two acts.
The scene “Watching Them Without Her” introduces our protagonist’s husband and son (played by Bush’s actual son) at home, expecting to hear from her any moment, and effectively heightens the uncertainty of those dark hours spent adrift. The scene also introduces the show’s life force: family. It was Bush’s teenage son, Albert McIntosh, who nudged her to put Before The Dawn together, after all. Following what sounds like her helicopter rescue, the lyrics to “The Morning Fog” prove especially moving. “I tell my son / I tell my sisters / I tell my brothers / How much I love them,” she sings to intermittent applause, seemingly in response to some of her loved ones emerging on stage. With so much time away, with so much love to be shared, the line “D’you know what? I love you better now” resonates beyond its original delivery to include the audience, the evening, the artist’s legacy, and her family there. And it makes for a brilliant segue into the blissful celebration of family and life that is “A Sky Of Honey,” or Act III.
Act III sees the biggest changes to its source material. Not only is nearly every song a little longer and a little different from its studio version, but every melody hits differently following the near-death experience of “The Ninth Wave.” Every small pleasure is just a little sweeter. The suite follows the narrator and her son over the course of a summer day as they revel in birdsong and the light’s constant movement. Bush’s son takes on a larger role, fortunately replacing Rolf Harris’ voice-overs and leading the newly written “Tawny Moon” with a strong if very theatrical vocal performance.
Ultimately, it’s impossible for Before The Dawn to stand alone. Throughout the recording, there are surges of applause for no apparent reason that, while often rousing, serve as reminders of what the listener is missing. But because the main suites were written with a blind listen in mind and because it is so well-executed, the audio makes for an epic, vivid two-and-a-half-hour event that will enchant anyone new to Bush’s music and—with its many calls forward and backward, its cross-catalog layers—delight diehards. (Lines from “Waking The Witch” showing up in “Nocturn”! Those “Sensual World” bells in “Aerial”!)
It’s refreshing to hear Bush sing these songs in her weathered voice, to be reminded they are alive and breathing, not entombed in their studio productions. For most of us, the full thrill of a live Kate Bush show will always be the stuff of legend, but Before The Dawn provides a poignant approximation.