On Friday, September 30, singer Yusuf Islam, formerly known to us all as the legendary Cat Stevens, gave a stellar, intimate performance here at the Oriental Theatre in downtown Chicago to a sold-out crowd of about 2200 very approving fans…myself included.
Some 45 years after his early 1970s prime, the 68-year-old pop-folk star who gave us classics like “Oh Very Young,” “Wild World,” “Morning Has Broken,” “Father and Son” and my favorite, “Peace Train,” shone brightly on a dim “moon” lit stage with a sparse two-piece band and an open wooden attic that served as his main prop – a backdrop appropriately chosen for the show billed as “A Cat’s Attic.”
The performance was part of a multi-city tour (only Stevens’ second in the past 37 years), the American leg of which is set to close this week. The show’s title reflected a part of the home where one often finds isolation and solace, two things that can lead to some very creative moments in one’s life. Stevens, er…Islam, has certainly had plenty of those (the moments of isolation and the creativity) during a career that has now endured five decades of popular songs, at least one unpopular personal decision and some very unusual setbacks – as the night’s nearly three-hour performance of songs and stories so aptly attested.
Yusuf/Cat performed 32 songs in all, none seemingly more than three or so minutes in length (true to their original durations), and most of them true to the heartfelt folk-rock origins that made them – and him – so famous in the first place.
The songs mostly came from a storied career and a catalog of hit albums that spanned from 1967 – 1974, save for a few exceptions. Yusuf/Cat only had one #1 album in that timeframe, but several of his other works, particularly the albums Teaser And The Firecat and Tea For The Tillerman, achieved critical acclaim and multi-platinum status, establishing him as one of the premier singer/songwriters of his day.
The show itself was first marketed as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his first single, “I Love My Dog,” a big hit in England – not so much here in the States.
In between the tunes he performed on this night, Yusuf/Cat told stories that gave his audience insights into the things that have inspired him – as well as the events that transformed him – over the past five decades. For instance, early in the show he spoke of how his desire to be an artist was enhanced by a viewing of “West Side Story,” before launching into a Cat Stevens original, “Here Comes My Baby,” from his first album, Matthew and Son.
He followed that by recounting how the Beatles’ arrival in 1964 inspired him to write his own music. He then began to sing the Fab Four’s “From Me To You” before stopping himself after a few bars, retreating to the “attic” behind him and finding a vinyl copy of the Beatles’ Twist and Shout album (containing “From Me To You”), then playing the original tune – complete with all the snaps, crackles and pops you’d expect to hear on a 52-year-old record.
That nostalgic moment was as awkward as it was entertaining. But then, that awkwardness has always been a part of Stevens’ charm. And it was certainly on display on this night, with the very forgiving crowd seemingly lapping it up. Whether it be the unscripted starts and stops for a couple of the tunes that weren’t quite right, the bass guitar that wasn’t plugged into the amp (for which Stevens playfully admonished one of the stage hands while he scurried about in his attempt to rectify the problem), the off-color lyrics for some of the tunes (“I love my dog as much as I love you” from the similarly titled song on his first album), or the huskily delivered off-key line that ends the 1972 hit single “Sitting” (both in its original recording and on this night).
Or the stage itself, with its understated nighttime setting and a very bright full moon that hung behind the two-piece band accompanying Yusuf/Cat. The moon would be extinguished for some numbers, but the shadows that it cast while lit were befitting of the Cat Stevens song that possibly inspired its use: 1971’s “Moon Shadow.”
And that two-piece band? Well it was more accurately a two-member band that played about half a dozen “pieces” between them, sometimes simultaneously…and very well I might add. In what would have otherwise been a mostly acoustic performance at the hands of Yusuf/Cat, the sparse accompaniments included a second guitarist and a bassist. The bass player occasionally provided percussion in the form of tambourines and drums operated by a foot pedal, while concurrently and deftly plucking the bass with his hands. Both he and Yusuf/Cat also took turns at the piano in that attic.
And so the three of them, Cat and his two stage mates, performed nearly three dozen songs from decades past – most of them album cuts, a few of them hits. He opened the show with “Where Do The Children Play,” from his fourth album, Tea For The Tillerman. That was the album that largely introduced Stevens to American mainstream audiences – and seven of its tracks, including his first top-40 hit “Wild World,” were among those performed here.
Speaking of tea – the beverage, that is – it was a running conversation piece for Yusuf/Cat, who occasionally sipped some and commented on how good it tasted. The British singer later remarked that we Americans couldn’t do tea like the U. K. could, as he continued sipping his apparently American brand. This banter was all part of the relaxed, stripped-down vibe that the folk singer was giving us, one that the audience of mostly baby boomers (by my estimation) was all too happy to receive.
But this Cat is also something of an anomaly, as we all knew beforehand, and I imagined that many in attendance were just as interested in the man’s life story as they were his music. And he didn’t disappoint, giving us tidbits about a life that has seen its well-documented share of illness, rejection, ostracism, spiritual transformation, religious profiling, success, failure and triumph.
For instance, after a reworked acoustic version of the song “A Bad Night” (a tune he accurately characterized as a “flop”), Yusuf/Cat spoke of some bad early life decisions and his contracting of “TB.” Tuberculosis had famously sidelined Stevens for a year back in the late 1960s. That story was the lead-in for the song “Trouble,” one of the first songs Stevens had emerged with after his recovery from the illness.
In fact, it was that illness and Stevens’ lengthy recovery from it that led to the creative transformation that likely saved his career. As case in point, in 1970, he released his third album, Mona Bone Jakon, to much greater success than its predecessor. Mona Bone Jakon contained “Trouble” and the title track, which he claimed (at the time) was simply a nickname he’d given his, uh… penis…while in recovery.
Awkward as that bit of info was (I found it via research, he didn’t reiterate it during the show), the album had marked a change in musical direction for a man who’d previously struggled during the post-British Invasion with unsuccessful pop songs in the vein of other sixties artists he’d been trying to emulate. Instead of that quirky pop music, Mona Bone Jakon was a more intimate, folksy collection of songs that would define most of his catalog going forward and place him among the best singer/songwriters in an era defined by them.
Yusuf/Cat also spoke of the journey to his mecca, Kathmandu, Nepal, a place where he’d learned about Buddhism and finding himself. He supplemented this story with one about his continuing journey to find inner peace and spiritual awakening via the book, “The Secret Path” by Paul Brunton. It was all a lead-in to the song “Katmandu,” another great tune from Mona Bone Jakon.
He then finished the first set with that ode to his male part (with its crude lyrics: “I got a Mona Bone Jakon, but it won’t be lonely for long”), followed by “Miles From Nowhere” and “On The Road To Find Out,” clearly saving all his best stuff for the next half.
Then, after a 25-minute intermission, Yusuf/Cat gave us just that – his best stuff.
He got the second set started with the plaintive “Sad Lisa,” followed by the beautiful “Into White” and then the song he introduced as one that was likely the most significant of his catalog for many in the room, including himself: “Father and Son.”
As serious as that tune was (Yusuf/Cat told of how it was inspired by the Russian Revolution), even it couldn’t escape the awkwardness that permeated the night. During the earlier intermission, a bit of a challenge had emerged in the men’s restroom when someone came in and shouted to about 20 men standing at the stalls: “ok, what is Cat Stevens’ best song?!”
One man answered “Peace Train,” to which the questioner countered: “no, it’s ‘Father and Son’.”
And so it was that after Yusuf/Cat played that tune, the night continued with more songs and more stories. For instance, he followed “Oh Very Young” with a story of his one-time interest in numerology before launching into “Novim’s Nightmare.” He then spoke of a near-death drowning incident in the Pacific Ocean (and a God-sent single wave that guided him safely to shore) before playing “To Be What You Must.”
It was all good stuff.
In fact, if there were any disappointments at all, they were very few. One candidate might have been during the encore performance of Stevens’ biggest chart hit, 1972’s “Morning Has Broken.” One of the original song’s best attributes is the piano solo that introduces it and plays throughout to its end. In this night’s performance, the piano – played by the backing band member – was understated at best, and it didn’t end the song as it does in the original recording.
It would have also been neat if the stage scene had morphed from night to day as that song played, in keeping with its theme. But this was not a high-tech night, and creating a change in scenery may have been asking too much from a legendarily no-frills performer like Islam/Stevens.
But what he lacked in high-tech audio-visual, Yusuf/Cat more than made up for with his versatility and the easygoing vibe that permeated the show. As evidence of the versatility, the set list for this show was altered from the one only a few nights earlier in Nashville, which itself was different from the one before it in New York. And the night’s intimate vibe was enhanced by the humbly delivered, yet engaging stories that one would come to expect from an entertainer of Yusuf’s stature.
Of course, the stories would not have been complete without Yusuf/Cat touching on the topic that many of us were curious about: his 1977 conversion to Islam. He simply alluded to it by referring to “a book” that his brother had given him. After briefly interrupting the story with a cover performance of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” Yusuf/Cat continued to speak of the rejection he began to feel as a result of the growing “aversion to his choice.”
He then performed the song “Roadsinger” (the title track from his 2009 album), featuring a beautiful slide guitar performance by one of the two backing band members. After that, he spoke of his decision to “leave” (though he didn’t specify what exactly), jokingly telling the audience that we’d have to read about the ensuing 27 years of his life in his book. Those 27 years included the one (2004) when he was famously banned from entering this country because he was on the FBI’s watch list following 9/11.
The record shows, however, that Yusuf/Cat has been a champion of peace for much of his adult life, particularly in the years following 9/11. The noted philanthropist and educator has probably done more towards that end than all of those in his audience combined. And though his name has since been cleared from the FBI list (its entry there being the result of either a mistake or religious profiling) – and U.S. re-entry obviously granted – it was clearly a setback with which he will always be associated.
In fact, in these times of growing anti-Islamic sentiment and fears fanned mostly by the rhetoric of certain politicians, I was particularly interested in not only how he would approach the sensitive topic, but how this particular audience would embrace it. It became immediately clear that these people loved the former Cat Stevens AND the current Yusuf Islam – he being the poignant folk musician of many of their youths – and they didn’t mind setting aside any preconceived notions about his religious choice (and the resultant name change), assuming there were any.
Indeed, this cat was warmly embraced. People loudly applauded the legendary singer throughout his performances and gave him a standing ovation after the last song of the second set, a medley of “Maybe There’s A World” and the Beatles “All You Need Is Love.” Several people shouted “I love you Yusuf,” to which the singer responded in kind.
The entire room was still on its feet when Yusuf/Cat and company returned for the encore, in which he launched into a performance of what many consider his best song (despite the bathroom heckler’s opinion to the contrary): “Peace Train.” The now festive audience was ready for it, too, with many of us contributing the rapid hand-claps that punctuate the chorus – as well as the “ooh-aah-eee-aah-ooh-ahhs” that made us all background singers for a few minutes.
Yusuf/Cat followed that with “Another Saturday Night” (his hit 1974 remake of the Sam Cooke classic), “Morning Has Broken” and “You Are My Sunshine” – yes, the old pop standard that we’ve all sung at some point in our childhoods and which added to the night’s running theme of awkward – or at the very least – odd moments.
And with that, the house lights reemerged, the stage’s moon shadows disappeared and the old cat said goodnight for the last time.
It was great seeing Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens for the first time in person. The once troubled and lost young man was now an elder statesman who seemed to be at peace with himself. And his timeless, yet intriguing messages of “peace” and love continue to resonate through the hearts of many.
For that and for all his contributions to humanity, as well as his enlightening performance last Friday night, I say thank you Yusuf Islam.
For readers who are interested, here’s the set list for Yusuf/Cat’s Chicago show on September 30, 2016:
- “Where Do The Children Play?”
- “Don’t Be Shy”
- “Here Comes My Baby”
- “The First Cut is the Deepest”
- “I Love My Dog”
- “Matthew and Son” (with an interpolation of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” which itself borrowed liberally from the bridge of “Matthew and Son.”)
- “Northern Wind”
- “A Bad Night”
- “Mona Bone Jakon”
- “Miles From Nowhere”
- “On the Road to Find Out”
- “Sad Lisa”
- “Into White”
- “Father and Son”
- “Moon Shadow”
- “How Can I Tell You?”
- “Boy With A Moon and Star On His Head”
- “Oh Very Young”
- “Novim’s Nightmare”
- “To Be What You Must”
- “People Get Ready” (Impressions cover)
- “Road Singer”
- “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”
- “Maybe There’s A World”/”All You Need Is Love” (Beatles cover)
1. “Peace Train”
2. “Wild World”
3. “Another Saturday Night”
4. “Morning Has Broken”
5. “You Are My Sunshine”
You can click here for a special Spotify playlist I created of all the songs in order of their performances.
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