The first concert I ever attended was Cat Stevens in 1976 in Los Angeles, California with my sister Sue. That tour was to support his magical album Numbers in the United States, and was dubbed the “Majikat tour.” Back in those hippie days of the ‘70’s, many of us studied Cat Steven’s lyrics like poetic literature – indeed my 7th grade Social Studies teacher had us reading and interpreting his lyrics in the class room! I found something beautiful about his work, as did so many of the class who received a great gift at school that day – a deeper understanding of the meaningful impact music could have on their lives. At my first concert, in my 15th year, I also discovered the amazing impact that seeing an artist perform their work live could have on a heart. After that show we were not to see Cat Stevens perform in town again until last Sunday night, December 14, 2014, some 38 years later, just months after Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As the story of how this tragic absence came to pass is well told, let’s go on with the show.
The tour was dubbed the “Peace Train Late Again” tour. The theme was peace, with a reference to Yusuf’s long absence from the stage, and more importantly the world as it is still, clearly not living in harmony. While Yusuf made a few very short genteel statements during the show, he let the music and his lyrics speak for themselves – a fitting choice given his history with the press – misquoted and maligned.
The stage backdrop was itself a wooden train station, on our night, the last night of this short U.S. tour, with the signpost announcing “Los Angeles” as the depot. The lighting was simple, and appropriate – frequently illuminating the crowd in white light as we all joined in the singing. The current six-piece band including original guitarist Alun Davies is vastly improved over the 1970’s crew, and the sound was fantastic.
But the real attraction of all this was the man himself, and his messages, still delivered in fine raspy voice, with clear, crisp guitar, piano, and accompaniment. The edge is off the breathless, forceful delivery of the past, but the result is aged like fine wine. It was amazing to hear these songs arranged the way they had been so many years ago, each standing the test of time, and still sounding warm and resonant. Many of his key early tracks were included in the set list, beginning with opening song “The Wind” and it’s searching lyrics:
I listen to the wind
To the wind of my soul
Where I’ll end up, well, I think
Only God really knows
After the next four tracks, each covers, Yusuf launched into one of the highlights of the evening, “Miles From Nowhere” followed by “Sitting,” then at the piano, and shortly thereafter a fan favorite “Where Do the Children Play,” ending the first half with another heartwarming song of empowerment from the “Harold and Maude” movie soundtrack, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” One of the covers in that first half was Curits Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” with it’s train a-comin’ which certainly fit the theme of the night, sung beautifully as if a lullaby.
For the second half of the set, many more hits from the ‘70’s were performed including a beautiful rendition of “Trouble”, from my favorite album Mona Bone Jakon, as Yusuf made reference to it and so many of his early songs being written from a hospital bed as he struggled with that strange “medieval” affliction (Tuberculosis.) Also selected: “Oh Very Young,” “Moonshadow”, “Wild World,” “Father and Son,” “Sad Lisa” and a bluesy version of “Bitterblue.” The inclusion of part of the Foreigner suite, and “(Remember the Days of the) Old School Yard” were surprising given their historical rarity. Throughout the set, Yusuf added covers and many of his recent tracks, the best from this year’s excellent rock-n-blues release Tell ‘Em I’m Gone. The most effective of these “Big Boss Man” and “Dying to Live” are covers, while “Editing Floor Blues” is a driven, autobiographical original.
It occurred to me that with a few less covers, Yusuf could have delved a bit deeper into the back catalog, maybe even including something from Numbers and more from Catch Bull at Four, but all in all the set list was varied and appropriate to the theme of the night, placing Yusuf / Cat Stevens among his historical luminaries and their timeless art. By the end of the show, the enthusiastic audience had been reintroduced to this spiritual seeker, and his words of peace, just in time for one of the encores, “Peace Train”:
Oh, I’ve been smilin’ lately,
Dreamin’ about the world as one
And I believe it could be;
Some day it’s going to come
Introducing this one, Yusuf gently proclaimed, “The train hasn’t arrived yet, but we can still sing about it.” Let’s hope for another chance soon to sing along with this acclaimed troubadour of the heart. Peace, Out.