Singer Kate Bush returns to the stage 35 years after stage fright drove her from it

British singer Kate Bush performed her first set of shows in 35 years on Tuesday. The concert, “Before the Dawn,” includes renditions of her biggest hits and will go for 22 shows. (Reuters)

There’s bound to be a certain amount of hype when you’re a famously reclusive recording artist with a rabid, cultish fan base and you haven’t toured since your debut, which was during the Carter administration.

And so it followed that tickets for Kate Bush’s run of “Before the Dawn” shows sold out in 15 minutes, drawing fans from all over the world.

Bush performed the first of 22 shows at London’s Hammersmith Apollo theater, the same venue of her last concert 35 years ago. The first spate of reviews heaped praise. “Utterly sublime,” an Australian fan told the BBC. “Wondrous,” breathed the Telegraph. “Audacious and weird but … spellbindingly beautiful,” was the verdict from the Daily Mail.

The show began slowly, with just Bush and her band. “What followed were surely some of the most mind-bending images ever to find their way into a rock concert: huge billowing sheets making a seascape, a search and rescue helicopter buzzing over the audience and sailors in life jackets brandishing hatchets and a chain saw,” wrote the BBC’s Tim Masters. “There was even a bizarre mini-play — with Bush’s teenage son Bertie as one of the characters — about cooking sausages.”

Ladies and gentlemen, before the showy weirdness of Lady Gaga or the quiet brooding of Tori Amos, there was Kate Bush. Her shows had an almost Shakespearean theatricality and a magic about them — something that’s carried over to “Before the Dawn.” The BBC even included a spoiler alert atop Masters’s review of Tuesday’s show.

A spoiler alert.

For a concert.

To say Bush was Florence Welch before Florence Welch was doesn’t really do her justice. We’re talking abut a woman who petitioned James Joyce’s estate for permission to use Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from “Ulysses” in a song. Though she was initially turned down, the estate granted the request 22 years later. The result was “Flower of the Mountain,” which appeared on the 2011 album “Director’s Cut.”

“I was just over the moon to get permission,” Bush said in a 2011 interview with WXPN’s “World Cafe.” “Just that alone made the whole project worthwhile. You know, it was one of those things where I thought, ‘What the hell — I can only ask again and they’ll probably say no,’ but to my absolute surprise and delight they said yes and I’m incredibly grateful.”

Bush’s voice can be unconventional, witchy and otherworldly, which is how she sounds on her first single, “Wuthering Heights.” The song stayed atop the British charts for months when it debuted after Bush was discovered with the help of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour (who attended the “Before the Dawn” opening, as did Lily Allen and Bjork). Her work is often re-interpreted by other artists — Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work” is actually a cover of Bush’s song from her 1989 album “The Sensual World.” Bush gave it her distinctive, spare, clear-voiced quality. Have a listen:

The only problem? Bush’s crippling stage fright, which was what drove her away in 1979. In 2011, she told Britain’s Radio 4 she’d be “petrified” to return to the stage. “I do have the odd dream where I’m on stage and I’ve completely forgotten what I’m meant to be performing — so they are more nightmares than dreams,” Bush said.

Now 56, Bush is as thoughtful and introspective as ever, but eager to connect with her audience. She asked fans not to film or photograph in a request she posted on her Web site.

“We have purposefully chosen an intimate theatre setting rather than a large venue or stadium,” Bush wrote. “It would mean a great deal to me if you would please refrain from taking photos or filming during the shows. I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras. I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together.”

It may have seemed an impossible request, but Bush fans love her with such protective ferocity it’s easy to see why they would humor her — and they did. She evokes a sensitivity in people that few artists can match.

Leading British female pop singer Kate Bush in London, England, June 12, 1978. (AP Photo)
Leading British female pop singer Kate Bush in London, England, June 12, 1978. (AP Photo)

“I’d never heard music like this before — music made by women that wasn’t strictly about falling for a guy, that instead ran on the fuel of wild feminine imagination distilled from myth and fairy tales, and fed by the isolation of being that weird girl in class that nobody knows how to befriend,” wrote NPR music critic Ann Powers, who discovered Bush when she was 19. “That weird girl, me.”

It seems, for those lucky enough to score seats, a worthwhile treat awaits.

And for the rest? Pray Bush releases concert footage.

Soraya Nadia McDonald covers arts, entertainment and culture for the Washington Post with a focus on race and gender issues.
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