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On May 14, 1979, Kate Bush played the final date of her first (and only) concert trek, the Tour of Life, at London's Hammersmith Odeon. She didn't perform a full show again for more than 35 years. But this year, the grand dame of avant-garde returned to that historic venue (rechristened as the Eventim Apollo) for a 22-date residency, Before the Dawn, which triumphantly wrapped on Wednesday, Oct. 1.
However, Before the Dawn just may be the dawning of a new era for Kate Bush.
While it's highly unlikely that the famously reclusive and enigmatic diva, now age 56, will embark on an international tour or hit the heritage-act festival circuit (a rumored fear of flying has been cited as a reason for her refusal to tour in the past), her introduction Wednesday of her glorious finale number, "Cloudbusting," indicated that she will eventually return to the stage.
"This is the last song tonight… and for a while," Bush teased at the end of the epic evening. Hopefully that "while" won't last another three and a half decades. It's actually been worth the wait, but Bush's wildly successful comeback shows have proven that she has so much more left to offer artistically.
"Epic" is an annoyingly overused adjective these days, but it's a fitting one to describe Before the Dawn — a three-act, nearly three-hour multimedia extravaganza featuring 3D animation, filmed scenes of Bush singing in a flotation tank, and a massive cast including a master illusionist, a troupe of dancers in spiny fish-masks, and an unexpectedly adorable, CP30-reminiscent puppet. (That wooden marionette was actually inhabited by a petite human dancer named Charlotte Williams in Before the Dawn's dramatic final scene; Williams finally got her big moment Wednesday, when Bush introduced her as the show's "secret weapon… Every night she has played this part for us, and up until tonight she's never had a round of applause.")
Beginning with a more straightahead six-song performance before moving on to two conceptual song-suites — "The Ninth Wave," depicting Bush adrift in a spooky waterworld of dancing marine-life exoskeletons and safety-vested sea monsters, performing in what looked like a whale's ribcage; and "A Sky of Honey," a bird-themed piece climaxing with Bush sprouting raven wings and taking her last flight — Before the Dawn could have come across as pretentious, or just plain silly, if executed by a lesser artist. But masterminded by Bush, a brilliant woman known for her exquisite attention to detail and insistence on complete creative control, it was nothing less than magical.
At the center of it all, merrily barefoot and wearing one magnificently embellished cloak after another, Bush — all porcelain skin and cascading Renaissance curls and pure genius — was a revelation, showing no signs of fatigue from performing 21 of these high-intensity, endurance-testing shows. Her very appearance on the 3,600-capacity Apollo's stage literally elicited sobs from the elated closing-night crowd (which included Grace Jones, Graham Norton, and Bush's old mentor, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd), not to mention standing ovations for nearly every song. Fans were perfectly content to comply with the venue's strict no-cameras/no-cell phones policy (in fact, audience members cheered when they were ordered to turn off their devices at the start of the evening), just so they could remain totally present and take in every nuance of this intricately orchestrated spectacle.
The one slight complaint here would be the over-involvement of Bush's 16-year-old son, Albert "Bertie" McIntosh. His central role in Before the Dawn was significant, given that Bush's devotion to full-time motherhood since the 1990s largely contributed to her many career hiatuses and continuing refusal to tour. And McIntosh has clearly inherited some of his mother's talent and ambition; he's actually billed as Before the Dawn's "creative adviser." But his appearance in one skit dragged on for far too long, as did his one solo singing number, "Tawny Moon." Still, Bush's obvious love for her child and desire to include him was touching (McIntosh in fact received his best audience reaction during "The Morning Fog," when Bush sweetly crooned the line "I'll tell my son…" to him). "This is my wonderful son. I'm so proud of him. That's my boy!" Bush giggled at the end of the evening.
Actually, despite all the high concepts and over-the-top theatrics, Bush remained humble and downright giggly throughout the night, clearly moved by the audience's unbridled enthusiasm. "Without you, there is no show. I couldn't ask for a better audience… We're sad because it's the last night. I'm going to miss everyone so much. But to have spent it with you means so much," she gushed, as she and her son collected bouquets from admirers in the front rows. "Thank you again, everyone, for sharing this with all of us."
So, as Kate Bush's Before the Dawn residency comes to a close and speculation immediately begins as to how long it will be before she returns to the stage (what does "for a while" really mean, anyway?), speculation also focuses on whether a female artist (or any artist) coming up now would be free to express such rampant, idiosyncratic creativity. Who else, in 2014, would be able to pull off a musical revue as grandly ambitious as Before the Dawn? And who, if anyone, is the heir to Bush's avant-pop throne? Is it Lady Gaga? That might have seemed plausible a few years ago, but Gaga unfortunately already seems to be running out of original ideas. What about St. Vincent, Grimes, FKA Twigs, Karen O, or Banks? Maybe, but they all undoubtedly owe a huge debt to Bush.
Perhaps we will just have to wait for Kate Bush to make another comeback.
The full Before the Dawn setlist was as follows:
Hounds of Love
Top of the City
Running Up That Hill
King of the Mountain
THE NINTH WAVE
And Dream of Sheep
Waking the Witch
Watching You Without Me
Jig of Life
The Morning Fog
A SKY OF HONEY
An Architect's Dream
The Painter's Link
Somewhere in Between