By Roy Trakin.
Offering definitive proof that pop culture can trump politics, especially if it’s a memorable song, the Artist Once Again Known as Cat Stevens has embraced his inner twee and returned with a surprisingly fine new album, Tell ‘Em I’m Gone (Sony Legacy) and his first U.S. concert tour in close to 40 years.
Greeted by a rapturous throng of 7,500 in this sold- out venue, Yusuf/Cat appeared on a stage before an old-fashioned railroad station set out of a Clint Eastwood western with that instantly recognizable soothing voice, it was almost as if the tumult of the past four decades – his conversion to Muslim and subsequent post-9/11 political exile — had never happened, Islam/Stevens’ Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction last year smoothing the way for his re-emergence on the scene. Billing himself as Yusuf/Cat Stevens more for marketing than personal reasons, the celebrated singer-songwriter dipped into his oeuvre.
Fronting a crack, six-piece band – highlighted by his longtime accompanist, Welsh guitarist Alun Davies – it was if Cat had never been gone. Opening with Teaser and the Firecat’s “The Wind” with its appropriate lyrics (“I listen to the wind/To the wind of my soul/Where I’ll end up, well/ I think God only knows”), the older and newer songs joined together to present a seamless tale of looking back on a long and winding spiritual (and physical) journey that has, if not a happy ending, at least an enjoyable present after all those years seemingly spent in the wilderness.
He travels back to the ‘60s for “Blackness of the Night,” the b-side of “Kitty,” the failed single from New Masters, the follow-up to his successful U.K. breakthrough, Matthew and Son. He then introduced a pair of songs he wrote made popular by others, including “Here Comes My Baby” (a hit for English beat group The Tremeloes, his only concession to time updating “you’re forever talkin’ on the phone” to texting) and “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” popularized by Rod Stewart’s sandpapery 1977 version.
And from there, he transported the crowd with some of his best known songs – “Miles From Nowhere,” sitting down at the piano for “Where Do the Children Play,” before tackling the relatively recent “ Roadsinger,” the title track from the 2009 album of the same name. He references the train setting for a moving cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” seguing into a seemingly impromptu “All You Need Is Love” before closing the first part of the show with the upbeat Harold & Maude hit, “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.”
The second half of the concert spotlighted some of the covers on Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, including the Luther Dixon-Al Smith blues chestnut “Big Boss Man” and Edgar Winter’s “Dying to Love” along with some relatively obscure tracks, like “(Remember the Days) of the Old Schoolyard,” a Paul Simon-esque song from 1977’s Izitso and Teaser and the Firecat’s moody “Bitterblue.” He then turns the Jimmie Davis country-gospel standard “You Are My Sunshine” into a funky blues, seguing into “Moonshadow,” the autobiographical new song, “Editing Floor Blues” and a calypso-reggae take on Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night,” a song he first covered (and scored a Top 10 hit with) in 1974.
Effortlessly mixing old and new material, Yusef turned Procul Harum’s “The Devil Came From Kansas” into a rousing prelude to “Wild World” and an emotionally poignant “Father and Son,” which he proudly declared as the “first MP3 ever.”
For the encore, he dedicated the African strains of “Gold Digger” to Nelson Mandela before riding the “Peace Train,” enlivened by a Chuck Berry-ish backbeat solo from guitarist Matt Sweeney. By the time he concluded with “Morning Has Broken,” it was like time stood still, and this now grey-bearded troubadour’s gentle message of peace, freedom and self-realization had survived intact through the cultural upheaval of the past four decades.