Foundas On: The artist formerly known as Cat Stevens

Posted by Scott Foundas on 5.10.2011

It was hardly just "another Saturday night” when the artist currently known as Yusuf, formerly known as Cat Stevens, and born in 1948 as Steven Demetre Georgiou took to the stage for a two-and-a-half hour, 35-song concert Saturday evening at Stocklholm’s Hovet arena—the first of ten shows that mark the singer’s first European tour in nearly four decades.

It was also the culmination of a comeback several years in the making, during which Stevens, who converted to Islam in 1978 and shortly thereafter renounced the recording or performing of “secular” music, has picked back up his guitar and gradually re-embraced his old Cat Stevens persona. (On the current tour, both names appear on the poster and related promotional materials.) The result has been two albums of new material and a handful of live appearances, including an invitation-only concert at Lincoln Center in 2006, a stint at London’s Royal Albert Hall in the winter of 2009, and a memorable pas de deux with Ozzy Osbourne at John Stewart and Steven Colbert’s 2010 Washington, D.C. rally. An Australian tour followed last summer, and, as Yusuf/Stevens proved early and often during his European return, by any name he remains a consummate entertainer, his lilting baritone undiminished with age—perhaps because it has been so well rested.

Initially taking the stage alone but for his acoustic guitar, illuminated by a single spotlight and a couple of prop gas lamps, the singer quickly allayed any fears that he might focus on his newer material at the expense of his back catalogue, playing a few bars of “Lilywhite” (from 1970’s Mona Bone Jakon album) before transitioning into a tender version of “The Wind.” The latter song’s lyric “I’ll never make the same mistake” seemed to pour forth with particular poignancy from Yusuf, who now admits that his decision to leave music behind was based on a misunderstanding of Islamic attitudes on the subject. “Doubtless, some of you know my history,” he told the sold-out audience of 8,000 with a wink and a grin before recounting a few childhood memories of Sweden, where he lived for several months with his Swedish-born mother at the age of eight. It was during that time that he discovered Elvis Presley through a screening of Jailhouse Rock. “It began from there,” he said.

Joined now on stage by one of his oldest collaborators, the Welsh side man Alun Davies, Yusuf delved even deeper into the past for spirited renditions of “Trouble” and “Where Do the Children Play?” (two of the nine songs he wrote for the soundtrack of 1971’s Harold and Maude),“I Love My Dog” and “Here Comes My Baby” (both from his 1967 debut album Matthew and Son), and “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” a 1965 demo that went on to become a massive hit for several artists including Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow.

“This is my third career,” the singer noted at one point in the evening in reference to the first iteration of Cat Stevens, who performed in British coffee houses and toured with the likes of Jimi Hendrix before contracting a near-fatal case of tuberculosis in 1969. After making a slow recovery, both from illness and from the commercial failure of his 1967 follow-up album, New Masters, Stevens wriggled out of his contract with Decca Records and aligned himself with a new label (Island) and a new producer (former Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith) to hone the exotic folk-rock sound that would come to define him as an artist. Mona Bone Jakon, followed by the Multi-Platinum Tea For the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, arrived in rapid succession between July of 1970 and October of 1971, bringing with them the hit singles “Lady D’Arbanville,” “Wide World,” “Peace Train” and “Morning Has Broken” among many others.

In Stockholm, the audience would have to wait until the evening’s second set to hear most of those standards. In the meantime, Yusuf closed out the first set, backed for the first time of the night by his full seven-member band, with an extended preview of his forthcoming stage musical, Moonshadow, in which vintage tracks like “But I Might Die Tonight” and “On the Road to Find Out” combine with later efforts like “Remember the Days of the Old School Yard” (from 1977’s Izitso) and “Maybe There’s a World” (from 2006’s An Other Cup) to tell the fanciful story of two star-crossed lovers in a faraway kingdom where the sun never shines.

After a short break, he returned, seated at the keyboard, for the environmental ballad “King of Trees,” followed by the title track from his most recent album, 2009’s Roadsinger, which offered further proof that, while Yusuf’s name may have changed, his music has remained very much the same. That sound might best be described as the singer-songwriter equivalent of comfort food, offering simpler melodies and more accessible lyrics than his near-contemporaries Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, and no fear—then or now—of being dismissed by cynics as romantic naif. (The rock critic Robert Christgau once derisively dubbed him "the English James Taylor.") "I was a flower child, and in a way I've never stopped being a flower child," Yusuf told Al Jazeera's Riz Khan in a televised interview earlier this year.

To revisit Yusuf/Stevens now is to realize how well his work stands the test of time. His songs might not change the world, but the best of them manage, for a few brief moments, to make us believe that such things might be possible. Aside from a partly Zulu-language “Wide World”—inspired, the singer said, by his travels to South Africa—he has little altered the lyrics and arrangements of his classic Stevens songs, but he performs them with an urgency that suggested they were written only five minutes ago. And at Saturday’s concert, the pleasure of the audience was rivaled only by Yusuf's own, as he periodically shut his eyes and surrendered blissfully to the music and the energy of the crowd, a man finally at peace with himself and his art.

The rest of the evening built steadily in intensity, through “I’m On My Way,” “Don’t Be Shy” and a powerhouse “Father and Son,” culminating in an encore that paired Yusuf’s latest protest song, “My People” (written in the wake of the uprisings in Egypt and Lybia) with one of Stevens’ most enduring, “Peace Train.” Like one of the voyagers he so often sings about, Yusuf has traveled down many roads now, been both prophet and pariah, shaman and seeker, rebellious son and wizened father. At the end of that journey, he has found himself very much back where he began, and where he unquestionably belongs. “Thanks for your love and support, I hope it won’t be another 36 years,” he said upon leaving the Hovet stage to a standing ovation. And the hopes of 8,000 fans were with him.

Image by Aminah Yusuf, courtesy Yusuf (Cat Stevens) European Tour 2011.

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