The return of Kate Bush to the stage on Tuesday night after an absence of 35 years is arguably the outstanding musical event of 2014, if not the decade. By comparison, David Bowie's surprise return last year after a 10-year silence looks almost humdrum.
The 100,000 tickets for Bush's 22 shows at the Hammersmith Apollo sold out within minutes in March. Now, the initial sense of shock and awe has been replaced with feverish speculation about what awaits.
The handful of appetite-whetting titbits hint, unsurprisingly, at a highly theatrical spectacle. The doctor's daughter from Welling, Kent, who exploded on to the music scene in 1978 with her debut single Wuthering Heights, was already committed to dance and mime. Throughout her early career, animating the extraordinary subject matter of her songs was a priority. Her sole tour, the 1979 Tour of Life, was a groundbreaking mix of mime, dance, poetry and theatre. Her videos were mini-movies, each one featuring Bush in character.
The little we know about Before the Dawn suggests she has lost none of her gift for drama. The RSC's director Adrian Noble is on board, as is choreographer Anthony van Laast, who worked on the Tour of Life. Bush will perform The Ninth Wave, the conceptual suite from her 1985 classic album Hounds of Love, as part of the show, and spent three days in a flotation tank for the filmed sequences. The musicians include Peter Gabriel's guitarist David Rhodes and West End performer Sandra Marvin. There have been excited mutterings about puppeteers. One source said Bush had been obsessing over every detail, down to the design of the ticket stubs. "Driving us mad," they sighed, not unkindly. It's classic Bush: tightly controlled, utterly idiosyncratic. In an age of full disclosure she has somehow managed to retain the trump cards of mystery and surprise.
Beyond its contents, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Before the Dawn is the possibilities it points towards. One comparison is with Leonard Cohen, whose return to the live arena in 2008 after an absence of 15 years heralded a triumphant third act which has delivered two superb studio albums (the latest due next month), two live records, a DVD and a new Greatest Hits collection. His live comeback has revived and recontextualised a career that was revered but somewhat dormant, and in need of a little post-millennial polish. Unlike Cohen, Bush has not been forced on stage by unfortunate circumstances – his business manager had embezzled all his money – but the impact could be similarly kinetic.
The signs are positive. Bush has controlled her career with such fierce independence it is inconceivable to imagine her doing anything against her will. She is not performing live for the money, nor because the industry demands it of her. She is doing it because she wants to (she has been talking about a visual adaptation of The Ninth Wave since 1985) and because the timing is right.
She retreated in the mid-90s to raise her son Bertie with her partner, the guitarist Danny McIntosh, at her homes in Berkshire (she has since moved to Oxfordshire) and Devon. But as the heavy lifting of motherhood has lessened – her son recently turned 16 – Bush has become more engaged with her career than at any point since the early 1990s.
She released two albums in 2011 and rebooted Running Up That Hill for the Olympics opening ceremony in 2012. In this context, the live shows can be seen as the logical next phase of a process of re-engagement with the mainstream that has been taking place over the past few years. Her 2011 album, Director's Cut, a relatively spare reworking of songs from The Red Shoes and The Sensual World albums, felt very much like a live album, just without an audience. Anyone looking for clues for the setlist could do worse than give it a couple of spins before Tuesday night.
The shows are an event in themselves, but also a significant fork in the road. If she is overwhelmed by the exposure we may not see or hear from her for some time. If she enjoys the experience, the ramifications are significant. Before the Dawn will alter the narrative surrounding Bush. Coming – relatively – hot on the heels of Director's Cut and 50 Words for Snow, her physical re-emergence as a living, breathing, singing entity is a huge leap after decades of retreat.
Not only has Bush not performed in concert since 1979, she has not appeared on television since 1994, and has attended public engagements only four times since the birth of Bertie in 1998, most recently last year to accept her CBE. Before the Dawn will, at last, create a new visual frame of reference for a woman who has often felt constrained by the difficulties of living up to the striking series of creative personae she developed as a young woman.
The shows should also put to bed the perception of her being, in her words, a "weirdo recluse". So complete has been Bush's retreat from the spotlight that at times her absence has threatened to overshadow her presence. It's easy to forget that she made her impact as a wildly experimental artist working firmly, and very visibly, within the mainstream music industry.
The early part of her career had all the trappings of the conventional pop star: hit singles, videos, record store signings, TV performances, mimed cameos at European pop festivals. In 1985, she came back after a three-year absence by performing Running Up That Hill on the Wogan show. Even in the 90s she appeared on the Des O'Connor Show and Top of the Pops. Only when Bush vanished in the mid-90s did her creative eccentricities – always a big and positive part of her appeal – really hijack her personal narrative. When she returned after a 12-year silence in 2005 with Aerial it was to fight off rumours that she was mad, or agoraphobic, or a drug addict.
Look more closely, however, and the arc of Bush's career isn't quite as abnormal as is often painted. Since 2005 she has released three albums – not so shabby by today's standards – and Before the Dawn seals the perception of Bush moving towards the territory she inhabited during the first decade of her career: a supremely gifted artist who does not hide in the margins, but is capable of delivering her unique vision into the nation's living rooms.
The experience of appearing in front of 100,000 fans might make Bush reassess the future levels of her personal engagement. If she enjoys it, it's not inconceivable to imagine her performing on Later … with Jools Holland, or again making videos in which she stars, or appearing on television to talk with a sympathetic arts journalist. Before the year is out she will surely release a DVD of Before the Dawn, as well as a new Best Of collection. Both will reanimate her work for existing fans and deliver it anew to younger generations.
At 56, Bush is in her prime. 50 Words for Snow contained passages as remarkable as anything she has ever done, and Before the Dawn contains the promise of unleashing a period of creativity that could rival the extraordinary peaks of her first. Perhaps in time, rather than a defining hiatus, the silence that fell upon Bush between the mid-1990s and mid-noughties will come to be seen as a healthy pause, a reinvigorating gap, between two imperial phases.
Born 30 July 1958, Sidcup, Kent
Career Taught herself to play the piano aged 11, then the organ and violin and, by her mid-teens, had composed more than 200 songs. At 14, Bush was spotted by Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour, who helped her get a record deal.
Best of times Wuthering Heights topped the UK and Australian charts when Bush was just 19. She repeated this success with her 1980 album Never For Ever and 1985's Hounds of Love.
Low point Bush dropped out of the public eye for many years following the death of her guitarist Alan Murphy and dancer Gary Hurst and the death of her mother to cancer in 1992.
What she says "I find that with people that I haven't seen for a couple of years they won't treat me as a human being. And people in the street will ask for autographs and also won't treat you as human … sometimes I get really scared. Sometimes when I'm going to the supermarket to get the coffee and cat litter, I get freaked out and see all these people staring … You start freaking out like a trapped animal." (NME, 1979)
What they say "My favourite instrument in the whole world is the human female voice, and Kate Bush is one of the reasons why. It is, by far, a Stradivarius, which is why she rarely deals with the press or isn't in a rush to record. She's one of the few who can be above all that." (Marianne Faithfull, 2011)
• Graeme Thomson is the author of Under the Ivy: The Life & Music of Kate Bush (Omnibus Press)
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