I wasn’t expecting to cry.
However as Kate Bush leads her band out on stage – small and barefoot in a long black fringed jacket and lashings of dark hair – here come the saltwater-works.
Singing the gorgeous Lily from 1993’s The Red Shoes, she’s shyly smiling, delighted to be here. With the first notes of Hounds of Love, I’m bawling my eyes out, having first fallen with wide-eyed wonder as a tiny child swirling round the sofa to Wuthering Heights. I’m not the only one here in tears, far from it, floodgates open all around me. Her first time on the public stage in over three decades, Kate’s voice is astounding and I only calm down enough to appreciate it fully well into the melancholy meander of Top Of The City.
There’s another pinch-me moment with Running Up That Hill, and you really hear the soul of her voice within the syncopated rhythms of King of the Mountain. Despite all the talk of her penchant for theatrics, I wonder if this might be all there is to it this time. Just slightly swaying earth-mother Kate and her soaring voice (and seven-piece band and backing singers) on a big blank stage, a brave move in itself.
It all turns into the most fantastic dream. A burst of confetti into the crowd and the advent of mysterious robed figures usher in a series of filmed pieces on the big screen. Kate is a woman lost at sea, singing through the darkness, bathing us in the quiet sadness of And Dream of Sheep. There follows a gripping live-action sequence – the singer is trapped in the briny underworld, dancing around the ocean-floor wreckage. Fish-headed demons envelop her, and pull her THROUGH the stage floor.
Then it gets REALLY trippy. In the glowing hull of a swaying boat, a domestic drama plays out (with dialogue by best-selling Cloud Atlas novelist David Mitchell), Kate is a ghost in her own living room, plaintively singing Watching You Without Me, unable to get through to her husband and son (played by Kate’s son Bertie McIntosh).
As she is raised gasping from the depths, sea monsters ready to tug her back into the blackness, then clinging to a listing buoy centre stage, Kate’s vocals are perfection.
‘Let me live’ she implores, as a treacherous ocean is recreated before our eyes.
After a shellshocked break, its curtain up for a piece of work that is the flip side of the first half’s deep, dark Ninth Wave. A song cycle from 2005 album Aerial, a Sky of Honey counterpoints that depth and drama with sweetness and light in the vocals and lusciously-hued visuals, though strangeness still abounds. There is a puppet boy, who she embraces maternally, perhaps representative of Bertie, who’s grown-up painter clashes with his small puppet self. The lofty teenager, who has inspired and encouraged his mum to venture back into the live arena, hasn’t quite inherited her vocal genius but he’s a talented actor.
Bolts of rippling fabric, giant celestial bodies, fluttering feathers abound, all soooo Kate. Since the set doesn’t include her most howlsome songs like Wow or Wuthering Heights, her trademark spooky vocal gymnastics only erupt now and again, as in an incredible series of bird trills set to flickering avian shadows. From towering set-pieces to small feats of visual trickery, you never know what fabulous apparition you’ll experience next. Blink and suddenly the backing musicians barely focused on while all eyes are glued to Kate are wearing creepy birdskull masks.
There are beautiful, simple interludes at the piano too, moments to catch our breath before Kate swipes it away again with nothing but her voice. (The same piano will later intersect with a sudden silver-birch tree trunk in the most devastating piece of stagecraft I’ve ever seen.)
The show – the word feels inadequate – is by turns heartwarming and heartbreaking, and of course there’s a transformative finale that reveals Kate for the mythical creature we all know her to be.
When she finally sits down, warm and human again, at the piano for an encore of Among Angels, we’ve been swept up in an emotional journey that began the first time we ever heard that voice and saw that face many moons ago. So when Cloudbusting happens, there are more joyous tears all over the auditorium and strangers embrace. I can’t help but marvel at the steel and stamina it must take to tackle a 22-night run of a performance of such intensity and technical intricacy after 35 years away from the limelight.
Truly the stuff dreams are made of.
(An abridged version of this article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post)