Monday, 26 February 2018

Across the elements: 'The Kick Inside' play the songs of Kate Bush

It's hard to overstate what Kate Bush's music means to me - she is definitely one of my 'touchstone' artists, one of the cherished few who Can Do No Wrong. But as so often with these things, it's about more than the records themselves; it's to do with age, time and memory. Her career is so oddly shaped. The songs poured out of her in her youth, filling three brilliant albums between 1978 and 1980. But the fourth record, 'The Dreaming', a collection of searingly strange masterpieces, like 10 pieces of audio-only performance art, took until 1982 - and seemed to bring on a kind of creative exile.

I started listening as a near-teenager when 'Hounds of Love' came out three years later. These gradually-increasing gaps between albums were not as common then as they are now. For many listeners, KB had essentially disappeared, and this was a triumphant 'comeback'. Archive shows these days give you the impression that she was more or less a regular on programmes like Terry Wogan's chat show, staging each new single like a miniature play. 'The Whole Story' - an odd, all-too-brief hits collection - was released to take advantage of this imperial phase: so this new fan suddenly had a way into all the previous albums, too. Obviously, it was like entering another universe: many people will readily agree that KB's music is original, otherworldly; but for a boy grappling with puberty, it was also a window into the feminine, a kind of delicate power that I could barely make sense of at the time, but addictive, welcoming and beautiful.

And then, the silences. When you're 12, a four-year wait for an album is a lifetime. 'The Sensual World' arrived when I was 16, 'The Red Shoes' when I was 20. For me, the appearance of a Kate Bush album was like the monolith from '2001' turning up in HMV (and invariably, had as profound an effect). Every different record found me as a different person. And these absences made the heart grow oh-so-fonder. When I was a student, I even wrote a song about falling in love with Kate Bush, which - with a student's innate grasp of subtlety and nuance - was called 'Falling in Love with Kate Bush'.

Why go into all this? Because of a wonderful debut concert I had the pleasure of attending yesterday evening, by 'The Kick Inside' - a duo who, in their own words, 'celebrate Kate Bush's early career'. Not everything is quite as it seems, as 'The Kick Inside' is in fact an alter-ego of one of my favourite bands, Raf and O. (I wrote about their most recent, superb album 'Portal' here.) In their normal incarnation, the gossamer mix of Raf's voice and guitar, and 'O's drums, phased, treated and suffused until the songs sound unearthly yet intimate, give the impression that you are listening in on music that might be from another dimension. Utterly human, but thrillingly unfamiliar, off-kilter, evolved. The realisation struck me that Raf and O's music has a similar effect on me now that KB's albums did then: glimpses into the unknown followed by immersion in a unique sound.

So, when I heard that Raf and O were creating a Kate Bush side-project, it already felt like a perfect fit - in particular, who better than Raf to negotiate the swoons and swoops of those highwire melodies? The format for 'The Kick Inside' is, on the surface, more conventional: Raf, seated, sings at the electric piano and 'O' plays the double bass on most, but not all, the numbers. The opening 'The Man with the Child in his Eyes', performed by Raf solo, seems to set out their stall: even the most piano-led KB tracks had embellishments, but this was shorn of any distraction, a pure, commanding rendition. Just as 'Raf-as-Kate' sports a look that suggests KB without any hint of costume or fancy dress, so the vocals never become an imitation or pastiche: it's simply that Raf's voice is so well-suited to the songs.

The project also seems to have sprung to life fully-formed, with arrangements that sound like much more than the sum of their parts. You would think the pair had been doing this for years. Tunes like 'Them Heavy People', 'Hammer Horror' or 'Babooshka' have all the bounce and snap of the originals thanks to 'O's agile, percussive basslines snaking their way around Raf's rhythmic piano. It's a testament to both Raf and 'O's musicianship in finding the exact pieces of the jigsaw to ensure nothing is missing - and to the indestructibility of the songs themselves.

As an overall performance, it was one of the most carefully and effectively put together sets I have seen for a long time. When I read that phrase 'early career', I initially thought we would hear material from the first two or three albums. This seemed sensible given the modest set-up, and also a nice incidental complement to the fact that KB played no material from that far back in her remarkable 2014 run of live shows. For the first half of the evening, this proved to be the case - although the last song of 'part 1' dropped some intriguing hints. 'Breathing', a song imagining a poisonous nuclear winter, originally featured an ambient, eerie middle section, which here, the duo tackle with an abstract instrumental passage that fits the bill perfectly.

And after a breather, they were back, and a short while into the second set, conjured up some next-level magic. 'Sat in Your Lap', from 'The Dreaming'. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The twisted 'Take 5' riff, the noisy, jerky, stop-start rhythm - it was all there. Immediately after this, we were treated to 'Running up That Hill', with 'O' strumming the bass strings to suggest the thunderous drums, Raf somehow providing almost robotic chiming chords to fill in the sound and deliver an astounding vocal as well.

I was in raptures to hear my favourite KB song, 'Suspended in Gaffa' (another 'Dreaming' selection) brought to such lovingly intricate life - and I don't think any of us were expecting a finale of 'Cloudbusting': 'O' switching to a single drum, the electric piano under Raf's hands finding the circular string riff. In all the duo's interpretations of these later, more ambitious and certainly more technology-heavy Kate Bush tracks - nothing was missed. It wasn't even that I spent the gig wondering quite how they were doing it (although I did afterwards!) - I had almost stopped noticing. It seemed that the songs were just as happy existing like this, every idea present and correct, every corner explored and feature deployed, but in this stripped-down, intense form. 

The clues were already there in 'The Man with the Child in his Eyes'. Already so expert in suggesting parallel musical worlds with their own music, Raf and O as 'The Kick Inside' show us another alternative reality: where Kate Bush still wrote all those spectacular songs, but was never seduced by technology, submerged in band arrangements or occasionally dated production, perhaps never even became a perfectionist, or near-recluse. In this other dimension, she never stayed away from the stage for three decades - instead, she's out there, performing for the love of it, seeing the effect the sheer immediacy of her words and music has on the audience. Hearing this spellbinding show, I re-connected with all those memories I mentioned at the start of this post, and this made them into something new: a collision of past and present, thanks to 'The Kick Inside' sounding so like KB on the one hand, yet so like themselves on the other. I can't wait to experience it again.


You can read more about 'The Kick Inside' on their website here - and go here to listen to a session they recorded for Resonance FM.

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