A concert by Yusuf, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, comes around only slightly more frequently than Halley’s Comet, so it’s no surprise that Yusuf’s first appearance in Los Angeles in 33 years was a bit of a feeding frenzy. However, if Yusuf seemed dazed by the hoopla, he didn’t let it show.
Playing at the El Rey Theater to an adoring, celebrity-studded, invite-only crowd of around 500, Yusuf wasted no time returning to the songs he’d ignored for nearly 25 years following his conversion to Islam in the late ’70s.
After opening the show with the inviting “Welcome Home,” the first track on his powerful new CD, “Roadsinger,” he immediately set the Wayback Machine in motion, launching into the wistful, beautiful love ballad “Lilywhite,” from 1970’s “Mona Bone Jakon.” Throughout the 80-minute set, he artfully intertwined classic Cat Stevens songs from the ’70s with new tunes, weaving a seamless tapestry with his gentle, soothing voice and his easy way with a timeless melody.
He displayed a disarming charm as he delivered a note-perfect rendition of “Where Do the Children Play” before sliding into new song “Thinking ‘Bout Love,” one of the purest, sweetest love songs in his canon. The years have aged Yusuf’s vocals in all the right ways: he sung a few tunes in a lower register (“Wild World,” which he sang partially in Zulu, was a full octave lower), but the warmth and nuance that made him one of the most popular singer/songwriters of his era were plentifully abundant.
Clad in black pants, a plaid shirt and black open vest, his wardrobe had more in common with Mr. Rogers than of a former musical superstar who dated the likes of Carly Simon (She allegedly penned “Anticipation” about him). A comfortable and ingratiating presence on stage. Yusuf seemed at ease on stage as he stood behind a microphone, playing acoustic guitar, but he was often a little tentative, like someone getting back on the bike after a long absence.
The melding of past and present was further enhanced by the addition of guitarist Alan Davies, who played on many Cat Stevens albums. Yusuf also brought out veteran bassist Kenny Passarelli (best known for his work with Hall & Oates, Dan Fogelberg and Elton John) for the title track for “Roadsinger.” At one point, Yusuf looked back at Passarelli and smiled-beamed, actually– melting away all the years between Stevens’ disappearance and Yusuf’s re-emergence. It was a lovely, touching moment.
Much of Yusuf’s lyrics serve as homilies of sorts. In lesser hands, lines like “To be what you must/you must give up what you are,” (from “Roadsinger’s” “Be What You Must”) would sound trite. In Yusuf’s, they sound like hard learned, experienced truths. Many of his songs seem deceptively simple, such as “All Kinds of Roses, from “Roadsinger.” With its nursery rhyme-lyrical repetition (“All kinds of creatures/all kinds of creatures/all kinds of creatures run on my land”), it’s easy to dismiss the song until it becomes clear that it is an invitation to tolerance.
There was a pleasing humility and grace that surrounded Yusuf. That calm didn’t lend itself to the most dynamic of shows, but instead, it created a sustained cocoon of warmth that was intoxicating in its 360 embrace. Though he only referenced his Islamic conversion once, his spirituality was an unassuming companion. At one point, an audience member screamed “You’re the best.” Yusuf smiled and pointed to the heavens and said, “He’s the best.” At the end of his regular set, he said, “I hope you’ll pray for me and I’ll pray for you.”
During the encore, Yusuf finally seemed truly relaxed, as if he knew the heavy lifting was over and that, yes, should he ever decide to undertake a larger tour, the ability was there on his part, and the enthusiasm remained on our part. (Such a tour is unlikely. I interviewed him a few months ago for an article for Performing Songwriter magazine and he said he had no plans to tour.)
His classic “Father & Son,” a still-touching story about filial discord, drew some of the loudest applause of the night. But it was his finale-a riveting, soaring “Peace Train,” complete with harmonies swelling like a choir, that filled everyone’s heart with joy. Then with a thumb’s up sign, Yusuf was gone. Hopefully, it won’t be another 33 years before he reappears.
(Editor’s Note: After Newman wrote the “Performing Songwriter” piece, Yusuf’s record company hired her to write the bio for “Roadsinger.”)