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4 September 2014updated 15 Sep 2014 12:32pm

Tracey Thorn on Kate Bush at the Hammersmith Apollo: the ecstatic triumph of a life’s work

If we still ask, where has Kate Bush been all these years and why has she not done this before, my answer would be that I think she has been living the life that made this show possible.

By Tracey Thorn

Kate Bush
Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith, London W6

When Kate Bush announced this year that she was planning some live shows, I felt very personally let down.

As someone who hasn’t toured since the year 2000, I often have to defend my position as a non-performer, and when I’m backed into a corner I pull out my handy list of fellow refuseniks. “David Bowie, Liz Fraser, Linda Thompson,” I’ll shout triumphantly. “Scott Walker, Paddy McAloon, Paul Buchanan.” And my trump card has always been Kate Bush, who beats the rest of us into a cocked hat, having toured once in 35 years. “I do not need to play live,” I say smugly, “because Kate Bush doesn’t.” And then she went and spoiled it all by changing her mind.

No one knows why Kate Bush stopped performing. Theories abound, ranging from perfectionism to stage fright to trauma over the death of a crew member on that first tour. But through all the discussions runs a similar thread of incomprehension as to why someone so loved, so revered, would not want to stand in front of an audience and bask in that adulation. I’ve just finished writing a book about singing, Naked at the Albert Hall, which touches on this question, looking at fear and vulnerability, and examining those enigmatic singers who retreat into the shadows, becoming mythologised as much for their absence as for their music (silent sirens such as Vashti Bunyan and Anne Briggs), as well as others who were in some way haunted by their talent (Dusty Springfield, Sandy Denny, Karen Carpenter, Scott Walker).

It was with all this fresh in my mind that I heard the news about Kate’s return, and so my curiosity was fired up. What would her voice be like after all this time of practising only the precise, controlled craft of studio singing? Would she have the stamina required to do justice to her songs, and to a long run of live shows? Was there any danger of a miming scandal? It was a situation rich with possibilities, a gift to a singer like me who likes theorising about other singers. I got my ticket and, a week before the concert, settled down to my homework of listening to all her albums. An academic exercise, intended to refresh my memory and reassess things I’d missed, or dismissed. That was on Friday.

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Three days later, on bank holiday Monday, the children were starting to worry. Coming into the kitchen, they would find me bug-eyed and bewildered, sitting at my laptop, with often weird and discordant, though sometimes swirlingly beautiful music pouring forth. “Mum?” they asked tentatively. “Are you still listening to Kate Bush?” Yes, was the answer. And not only that, but I was listening as a changed and slightly deranged person.

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Previously a respectful admirer of her music, I had, in the course of one long weekend, fallen in love. She had got under my skin, punched me in the guts, made me cry, sent me reeling. I’d gone to the gym and walked on the treadmill to “King of the Mountain” and “Nocturn” on a loop. Then I’d returned home and done it all again. I had, in fact, gone a bit mad.

So one week later here I am, clutching my ticket in Row N of the Hammersmith Apollo, all detachment thrown to the wind, about to experience something I didn’t even know I needed. I’ve read the early reviews, so I know more or less what to expect, and indeed it begins conventionally enough, albeit with songs I never dreamed I’d hear live being performed by an all-star band, and with actual Kate Bush standing there barefoot in front of me. Her face beams a warm pussycat smile, but the set of her jaw is determined and resilient lest you mistake one second of this smiling for soppiness.

Six straight songs and then, just as we are relaxing, the stage transforms, and the drama begins: a multi-sensory performance of “The Ninth Wave”, the suite of songs that forms side two of The Hounds of Love (1985). There’s Kate on screen in a life jacket, apparently slipping away from us, singing “And Dream of Sheep”, one of her most beautiful songs.

I should probably write this somewhere more formal – my will, perhaps – but in case I forget, let me say here that I would be happy for you to play this song at my funeral. I weep as she sings it, partly because I’m imagining my own funeral, but also because we are witnessing a struggle between life and death, where a drowning woman yearns to be saved, to return to her beloved family. “Let me live!” she cries a few songs later. Overwhelming and exhilarating as they are, all the special effects – Kate in a tank, a helicopter search beam strafing the audience – are in the service of the songs and the story.

Why is it so moving? Well, because when finally she is brought back it is not just the fictional heroine, but Kate herself who has survived the years, and those cold seas, and returned to us. The two strands, family love and audience love, intertwine as she shows us how both mean so much to her. “D’you know what?/I love you better now,” she sings, as the first half ends and we wipe our tears.

Part two is calmer, more reflective, consisting of one side of the recent album Aerial (2005). Reprieved from death, she now revels in the simple, sensuous pleasures of life. Birdsong on a summer afternoon. The setting of the sun and the rising of the moon. In more conventional hands this could be merely decorous and pastoral, even a little twee, but somehow she has found a way to transform contentment into euphoria. The mood is hypnotic, rhythmic and trancey, and the stage dazzles with images of light and flight; less genteel garden party, more full-on midsummer rave, it could be the ultimate blissed-out headliner of a blistering, sunny Glastonbury.

And her singing voice, which I so worried about? It is a thing of wonder, any youthful shrillness replaced by a richer, occasionally gravelly tone, and with a full-throated power unbelievable in someone who has so rarely sung live. All I can think is that she must have been practising, on her own in a barn somewhere, for the past 35 years. Practising, planning, waiting for all the stars to align – her own desire, the cast of collaborators, the right time and place – in order for this to happen. And it is an ecstatic triumph, a truly extraordinary achievement.

So if we still ask, where has she been all these years and why has she not done this before, my answer would be that I think she has been living the life that made this show possible. Writing the songs on which it all hangs, dreaming these wild and vivid dreams, loving her son. My point about some of those singers I mentioned earlier, who retreated from the stage, is that often they chose their life over their art, a perfectly reasonable thing to do, which can nonetheless be portrayed as a form of neurosis.

Kate Bush may have been semi-absent from our lives all these years, but it looks to me like she has been fully present in her own. And though we all fret about our work/life balance, in truth, it takes a lot of life to make work this good.