Sunday 17 December 2017

Music: Enduring legacy of Kate the Great

Ninth wave: Kate Bush's live album Before the Dawn is out this weekend
Ninth wave: Kate Bush's live album Before the Dawn is out this weekend
John Meagher

John Meagher

Live albums are curious oddities. Even the better ones tend to just offer a faded facsimile of the concert spectacle and, robbed of audiovisual, multisensory glory, they can be aural documents to appeal only to the most hardened fan.

Ten years on from the launch of YouTube, where fragments of gigs, if not entire shows, are posted for posterity, live albums seem to be especially redundant.

But if there's one concert album that will truly enhance your life this year it's Kate Bush's Before the Dawn. Out this weekend, this triple album gives some sense of the majesty of her residency at London's Hammersmith Apollo in the autumn of 2014. It manages to be, in places, a real crowd-pleaser, and, in others, gloriously, wilfully experimental. With Kate Bush, you wouldn't want it any other way.

Those shows were her first in 35 years - she had last toured at the tender age of 19 - and many assumed Bush simply wouldn't play live again. For some, the prospect of a Smiths reunion was more likely than this most singular of British musicians taking to the stage again.

For one who had eschewed live performance for so long, there was understandable excitement when she announced that she was going to be treading the boards.

The Apollo, incidentally, had been the venue for her final show of the Tour of Life back in 1979, and would be the only venue she played on her comeback. She told BBC Radio 6 at the weekend that she wanted to stay in one location due to the complex nature of her theatrical show.

Few were surprised when the 22 shows sold out in 15 minutes, and reviews at the time were euphoric. Even the more hard-bitten of critics were talking about the Kate Bush live experience as something that was several leagues above the ordinary.

This lengthy album captures much of the otherworldliness that critics attending those shows talked about. Intriguingly, the concerts eschewed any material from her first four albums. Most of it was culled from her wonderful 1985 album, Hounds of Love, as well as the more recent Ariel. To be more accurate, the shows were built around song suites from both albums, with 'The Ninth Wave' movement from Hounds sounding particularly wonderful on the album.

The concerts did not include any material from 1989's The Sensual World, although Before the Dawn features a sublime rendition of that album's 'Never Be Mine', which, apparently, had been performed during rehearsals for the shows.

It says something for Bush's extraordinary back catalogue that she was able to eschew some of her best-known songs and still deliver a concert quite unlike anyone else. It's remarkable too that someone in her 50s - who hadn't played gigs since her teen years - was able to adapt so well. But then, enormous amounts of work went into prepping the shows. To employ that hoary cliché, Bush is a perfectionist - one can hear that in all her recorded work.

It's especially the case on 2011's Director's Cut, in which Bush took songs from both The Sensual World and The Red Shoes and reworked them substantially. In three instances, those songs were completely rerecorded. The most significant change came on The Sensual World's title track, now renamed 'Flower of the Mountain'. Inspired by Molly Bloom's saucy soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, Bush had wanted to use the actual words James Joyce had written, but his estate said no. Twenty years later, she asked them again and this time they were more accommodating. Davy Spillane's gorgeously evocative uilleann pipes survived the change. For an artist who has been known to obsess about the smallest detail in studio, Before the Dawn remains largely unmucked about with. You can hear imperfections here and there and the sound isn't as pristine as some of those Auto-Tuned live albums tend to be, but it's all the better for it.

Two of the shows were filmed with the intention of a future DVD release, but there are no plans, as yet, to bring out such a concert film.

Intriguingly, Bush toyed with the notion of having someone else 'play' her part on stage. In a long, absorbing interview with Mojo magazine, she said: "I thought it would be nice if I got someone else to be in it and I could oversee the whole show from the outside." Not sure there would have been quite as big a ticket-stampede in that case.

Sadly, Bush seems in no rush to play any more gigs or to get working on a new album. In an interview on BBC Radio 6 at the weekend, she did her best to scotch expectations: "Every time I sit down to write something new it feels really difficult because it feels like I've never done it before."

* Other Voices returns for its 15th instalment next weekend and what a remarkable little festival it's become. When a handful of contemporary performers first played Dingle's tiny Church of Ireland church in front of RTÉ's cameras in 2003, few could have imagined that it would be firmly ensconced in the Irish music calendar. It's now an annual December pilgrimage for many and an incredible boost for the Kerry town in low season.

This year's line-up is eclectic and predominately homegrown. Lisa Hannigan will be performing songs from her excellent third album, At Swim, while Le Galaxie, All Tvvins and a new-look Imelda May will also be trying to deliver magic in the intimate setting of St James's Church. Rising Dublin rapper Rejjie Snow and Pixie Geldof - currently attracting glowing reviews for her debut album, I'm Yours - will also be performing.

Those unable to make it to the Kingdom can see what all the fuss is about when RTÉ broadcast the latest Other Voices series next year, although it's never quite the same on screen.

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