It is a special occasion whenever an iconic figure from music’s hallowed past decides to pick up the guitar and perform live after an extended break. And that was particularly the case on Monday night at The Davies Symphony Hall when Yusuf, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, took the stage.
Yusuf is one of those legendary artists who seems almost folkloric — he grew up in London during the swinging ’60s, toured with Jimi Hendrix, and wrote whimsical, peace-imbued ballads that reflected his unapologetically-innocent philosophy. He also took a 27 year sabbatical from pop music to focus on his devotion to Islam, a religion to that he converted to in 1977. Just a decade ago, there was a very realistic possibility that Yusuf would never perform again.
Fortunately, Yusuf opted to reenter the pop music world in 2006, although his live musical appearances since then have been rare. That’s why his performance on Monday night — part of his Cat’s Attic Tour, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of his first single — was so very special for the sold-out crowd in attendance.
Half musical performance and half storytelling experience, Yusuf took the crowd on an experiential journey, beginning the night with his 1970 song, “Where Do the Children Play?” off his seminal album, Tea for the Tillerman. Backed by a stage set that recreated his childhood flat in London, Yusuf provided explanatory notes behind the creation of several of his most memorable tunes, including “I Love My Dog,” “Here Comes My Baby,” “The First Cut is the Deepest,” and “Mathew and Son,” among others.
For the most part, Yusuf strummed an acoustic guitar while being backed by a small two-man band consisting of lead guitar and bass. Though I wouldn’t call him a natural orator — he’s a musician, not a stage actor, after all — Yusuf did exude a warmth and candor that seemed to belie so many of the false narratives that have clung to his character for so long. Partially due to a misunderstanding of Islam, and partially due to his own past comments (notably his criticism of Salman Rushdie, which he later apologized for), Yusuf earned a reputation in his later life as a joyless, stoic recluse.
But during his performance on Monday, he exhibited none of those traits, relating to the audience by talking of his childhood crush on Natalie Wood, partying on the road with Hendrix, and falling in love with the Beatles as a teenager in London. He was honest about his achievements and his failures, recalling that his 1967 song, “A Bad Night”— which was supposed to deliver him to stardom — turned out to be a flop.
After entertaining the crowd for about an hour, Yusuf took a brief intermission before returning to play his haunting piano ballad, “Sad Lisa.” The second act focused on tunes from his run of albums in the early ’70s, including Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, and Catch Bull at Four.
Perhaps the biggest reaction from the crowd — comprised primarily of Baby Boomers — came when he played his beloved tale of familial dissent, “Father and Son.” He intended to write the song as part of a musical on the Russian Revolution, he told the audience. After finishing that emotional number, Yusuf was greeted to a standing ovation.
As he entered the final stages of his performance, Yusuf played some of his more contemporary tunes (he’s released three albums since 2006), while relaying his religious and spiritual transformation. He told the crowd about how he was swimming in the Pacific Ocean off Malibu in Southern California when he became overwhelmed by the current and feared for his life. He said he called out for God, and was rescued by a wave that washed him ashore. He decided then to devote his life to religion.
Speaking openly of Islam in a notoriously-secular city like San Francisco took bravery from Yusuf, but it would have been a disservice to himself and his audience to skip an obviously important part of his life. Still, he did not proselytize and spoke reverently of all religions. Yusuf also spoke of his extended hiatus away from music, and how he decided to reengage with his chosen profession after his son handed him a guitar and asked him to play.
After closing down his second set, Yusuf came out for a three-song encore of “Wild World,” “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Morning Has Broken,” his piano-heavy hymnal from 1971’s Teaser and the Firecat. It was a fitting end to a memorable evening.
Not that the show was not without its imperfections — the bass was turned up too loud for the early part of it — but such minor flaws only added to the endearing quality of the show.
On a personal note, there was something spectral about seeing Yusuf perform — like seeing my childhood record player manifested in human form. I have few memories from my early childhood, but one recollection that stands out is hearing my parents play Cat Stevens albums at night while I went to bed. Cat Stevens is so inextricably linked to my adolescence, it was impossible to listen to him without being flooded by ancient memories. I never expected to see Cat Stevens perform in my life, and I’m so grateful I got the opportunity on Monday night.