In the liner notes to “Before the Dawn,” Kate Bush admits to how she “never expected the overwhelming response of the audiences” to the 2014 stage show this three-disc live album chronicles. Maybe that’s because Bush, one of England’s most celebrated progressive pop stylists, is also something of a Garbo when it comes to the stage. “Before the Dawn” preserves Bush’s first set of stage performances in 35 years (it wasn’t really a tour, as all 22 shows were presented at London’s Hammersmith Apollo). So, yeah, overwhelming audience anticipation is pretty much a given.
The album’s mighty 2½-hour running time is divided into three “acts.” The first is essentially a warm-up of unrelated songs from Bush’s five previous studio albums (nothing on “Before the Dawn” predates 1984). The second and third discs are dominated by thematic suites from 1984’s “Hounds of Love” and 2005’s “Aerial.” The former, “The Ninth Wave,” is darker and more abstract, a song cycle as told by a woman stranded at sea. The latter, “A Sky of Honey” is an emotive opposite, a spring serenade dominated by light, art and birdsong.
Here is where things get interesting. Bush has long been such an exacting stylist that one might expect “Before the Dawn” to be an equally precise replication of her studio works, with a ton of post-production gloss administered to clean up the rawness of a live show. Well, there’s none of that. The album-opening “Lily,” in fact, erupts with a wild and surprisingly immediate concert energy. Gone are the layers of synths and multi-dubbed vocals from the song’s initial version on 1993’s “The Red Shoes.” What we hear instead is a solemn guitar groove, the choir-like support of a vocal quintet and Bush’s robust singing, which towers over the pageantry. The same holds for “King of the Mountain,” an “Aerial” tune that Bush powers with an incantatory wail that rises like a windstorm. Its siren potency is maintained until the song crashes into rounds of thunder and what sounds, for all the world, like the roar of elephants.
“The Ninth Wave” also has instances when the live intimacy sparkles. The most obvious is capped by “The Morning Fog,” a serenade of lovely acoustics that lets the sun pour in after the suite’s profound drama and darkness. “A Sky of Honey” has far more suggestions of organic approachability, especially in the way it morphs from churchy meditation into a flamenco-like acoustic party piece during “Sunset.”
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The wildest thing, though, about “Before the Dawn” is that it is essentially a soundtrack to what was a very elaborate and theatrical stage presentation. With the visuals gone, the focus remains on the music, which sounds simply glorious. We can only hope this live opus represents a more sustained concert return for a true performance titan.