On Kate Bush

Before The Dawn, Hammersmith September 2014


It takes a lot to get me seriously excited these days.  My 55 years on this planet, 60% of which have been in the audio industry, have smashed the edges off life a bit.  However, when it was announced that Kate Bush was to play an extended series of shows at Hammersmith Odeon (sorry, Eventim Apollo I should say), I felt the kind of rush that I haven’t felt in a very long time.  Probably since 1979, when she announced her Tour of Life shows in fact.  I still have vivid memories of that show, which I saw at the Palladium in London, matched by only a very few other concert experiences, so unique was the approach to presenting her music.  Apart from the music itself (Wow!, England My Lionheart, Hammer Horror, to which she mimed – shock!) I remember the choreography, the sets, the fact that she danced and sang wearing a headset mic (another first I believe, probably made from a dismembered SM58 and a coathanger), and the most amazing illusionist. Here, in 2014, she was again, having spent 35 years watching everyone else – and she was returning armed with the technology that allows pretty much anything to happen.  So the expectation was very high, exacerbated by the news that Kate would perform The Ninth Wave and A Sky of Honey song cycles.  If A Sky of Honey is the last thing I ever hear, I will die a happy man. 

I may consider myself a lucky person.  I have been to amazing places with extraordinary people, and usually been paid to do so.  One of those people was kind and considerate enough to secure me two tickets in the fourth row for Before The Dawn, understanding the significance of these shows to me, himself and indeed the other 80,000 who bought all the tickets in a matter of moments when they went on sale.  This was a major event on the musical calendar.  Kate Bush has been with me since I left school, every album release a compulsory trip to the record shop (or now the spectacularly soulless iTunes Store).  The moment I heard Wuthering Heights I was hooked.  She was enigmatic, beautiful, original and challenging – these shows were a second coming.  There would be little condescension to her 56 years, no holding back on the spectacle and she would be performing some of her greatest music, which I don’t think anybody attending would have ever hoped to have seen her do live on stage.

Any production such as this costs a great deal of money to design, assemble rehearse and deliver.  Before The Dawn is a highly technical event, a visual feast of set, lighting, costume and choreography where it was apparent no expense was spared. That it would be musically brilliant goes without saying, especially when you have the likes of Omar Hakim, John Giblin and David Rhodes in your band.  Understandably, my main interest was in what it sounded like however, and the expectation was high. 

Designing the sound for a show like Before The Dawn, and working with such an iconic artist is a heavy responsibility – in that position one cannot underestimate the expectations of an audience who are bound to be intelligent, know the material really well and who have spent their adult lives with Kate Bush.  Her audience was always going to want total perfection, or as near as possible, as would Kate herself – but then what does an artist who hasn’t performed live in this way for 35 years actually expect, or indeed know what’s possible?  The technological advances in live sound have been immense since 1979 – line arrays, digital everything, radio frequency management, in-ear monitors – the impacts these have had on what’s achievable are incalculable, redefining the design of countless stage shows in the last fifteen years.  Madonna, Coldplay, Take That, Muse, Kylie, U2 and the rest can thank digital and wireless technology for allowing them the freedom to create shows on an epic scale.

One of the striking elements of the sound of Before The Dawn was the surround effects system, and the fact the show was in place in Hammersmith for over a month meant that the effects loudspeakers could be placed properly both in the stalls and the balcony, creating a cinematic soundscape, a rare luxury for a live rock show.  It was used to great effect in the Ninth Wave (including overhead helicopter) and Sky of Honey sections.  Davey Williamson of sound equipment suppliers Delta Sound, had worked hard for over six months preparing the playback elements of the show, which included the surround content and video sound tracks, as well as some musical content.  His work was exemplary.

With my lovely wife we were fortunate enough to end up seeing the show twice, from two different places, so I was able to take a view on things from more than one position.  It must be said that from the fourth row, it was not a good sonic experience – one felt as if there was a gig going on in front of you with the sound happening somewhere else altogether.  There was no direct coverage, and it made it very hard work trying to lock in on Kate’s vocal, and any musical detail was almost totally lost.  This was particularly evident in the first section of the show with the band in the downstage position, generating a very confused soundfield of both direct acoustic sources (mostly drums and percussion) and indirect arrivals from the very wide PA. Interestingly it was possible to hear Kate singing acoustically when she came right down stage – testament to her vocal power. I could appreciate that it was hard to get loudspeakers in the right place to get good coverage in the front rows, but I could see at least two possible solutions – a little lateral thinking beyond left, not very effective centre and right would have made all the difference.  This is a problem not exclusive to Kate Bush – it happens all the time, and is a pointless hangover from the early days of live rock and pop shows where nobody knew any better.  People who pay to sit near the stage are more often than not major fans and deserve the same experience as anybody else, especially considering the fact that they have paid maximum dollar for the privilege.

But what about the all-important mix?  On out second visit we were about half way back in the stalls, in the direct field of the system.  Whilst we felt very much involved in the action in the fourth row, the full extent of the theatricality and attention to detail of the show was evident.  This was a trip into the mind of a musical, theatrical genius who writes music with a head full of visions, who tells a story through her music in a way quite unlike any other.  Kate Bush’s music is a dynamic, complex musical picture that requires a mix that exploits this.  That’s not the mix I heard.  Her vocal was right there on the whole, as you would want, but the band was often an indistinct mess with precious little detail and power.  The low spectrum was the major issue, with the left hand of the keyboards, the percussion and drums a muddy wash.  The set was full of great opportunities to deliver – Hounds of Love and Running Up That Hill are both driven by tom toms, but you wouldn’t have known it.

My comments on this show will be considered by many to be sour grapes, but I have written this because Kate Bush and her music are important to me.  And it’s important to every person who came to her shows in Hammersmith during the late summer of 2014.  The man credited with the sound has a CV as long as both my arms as a studio producer and arranger, going back to some of the biggest albums of the eighties.  Has he a reputation live?  I don’t think so.  He had an assistant with some form, and who knows what the division of labour between the two of them was, but the end result was far from great.  The fact is chaps, you had months of rehearsals and you weren’t listening to what it actually sounded like in the room – you had a sound in your head that wasn’t translating into the space, and you didn’t know what to do about it.  In my book, for a show of this significance, that is highly unsatisfactory.

Here’s to Kate’s next comeback, hopefully not in 35 years time.


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