Written By: E. Flinn
A lot has changed in the 36 years since Cat Stevens last toured the U.S. He left his western life behind, he changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and he converted to Islam. But one thing has not, and that is the universality and timelessness of his sound. Tens of thousands of artists have come and gone since Cat Stevens first came on the scene in the late 60s, most struggling to keep their relevance mere months after a song’s release. Meanwhile, he purposely moved further and further away from his life as a superstar, all the while continuing to inspire generation after generation around the globe.
‘Harold and Maude’ was twenty years old when I watched it for the first of many times. ‘Wild World’ was almost thirty years old when an a cappella group at my University performed it for their annual concert. And ‘First Cut is the Deepest’ was thirty-seven years old when Sheryl Crow covered it and introduced it to a new generation. No matter how much time passes, Cat Stevens’ music is as relevant today as it was the day he put pen to paper to write these songs. That’s why, when he announced that he would be doing his first US tour since 1978, it was a no-brainer to get tickets.
We took the train down to the show. After Cat Stevens ensured that third party ticket venders could not run up ticket costs by keeping the tickets paperless, paying twenty dollars for parking seemed to go against the spirit of the night.
When we arrived at L.A. Live, the scene was beyond chaotic and a fitting example of the western excess that drove Cat Stevens halfway around the world so many years ago. An outdoor ice skating rink sprawled across every inch of the courtyard, proving that sixty plus degree weather was no match for modern science when people want to skate across frozen water in the name of holiday spirit. The rink proved to be quite the obstacle for concert goers as ticket-less entry is slow going. Lines of excited fans weaved and winded around the courtyard, waiting patiently to get in their seats before show time. Despite the congestion, the mood was light, as employees assured anxious fans that the show would not start without them. And when the security measures continued to bog down the process, a calming British voice came over the PA system, letting everyone know that the show would be 15 minutes delayed so that no one would miss a note of the show. In other instances, this kind of delay may annoy an already antsy crowd, but every one of the 7000 plus fans in the Nokia Live knew they were seeing something special that night, whether it started sharply at 8pm or not until 8:20.
The delay gave time to survey the crowd around me. From the looks of it, most of the audience had been following Stevens from the beginning, however the crowd was peppered with younger fans who had discovered him long after his self-instated exile. To my immediate right was one of the youngest members of the crowd, an antsy twelve year old who looked as if he had been dragged to the show by his father. I’m sure his father was excited to share such an historic show with his son, but as we waited for the band to take the stage, the son fidgeted in his seat, just ready to get the show started.
When the band finally took the stage at 8:20, the audience was immediately rewarded for their patience with a moving rendition of ‘The Wind’ from Teaser and the Firecat. The thirty plus years away from touring served Cat Stevens well. While other icons of the 60s and 70s struggle to hit the notes of their classics after years of wear and tear on the road, Cat Steven’s voice was as crisp and clear as it was in the early 70’s. Standing in front of a simple train station set and backed by a band of both long time collaborators and a few fresh faces, he looked completely at ease from the get go.
Los Angeles was the last stop on the “Peace Train … Late Again” tour, but even so, I had intentionally avoided reading any reviews or looking at any set lists of previous shows so to be able to enjoy the show as it happened. Since it was double billed using both of his names, I was unsure of what the balance would be between classic Cat Stevens songs and the newer albums from Yusuf Islam. He didn’t wait long to let the audience know that this was a Cat Stevens show and they could expect to be treated to all the classics. After ‘The Wind,’ he quipped, this next one is from a little movie called ‘Harold and Maude’ as he broke into ‘Don’t Be Shy.’
To say Harold and Maude was a definitive movie of my high school life would be an understatement. It was probably second to only “Say Anything”; as most watched movie at slumber parties and the fact that the soundtrack was not available to purchase meant that I had to buy all of Cat Stevens other albums to make a mixed tape to mimic it. And to think Elton John was originally asked to do that soundtrack. How different that movie would have been. Hearing ‘Don’t Be Shy’ live definitely brought back a rush of memories of sleepless high school nights.
He continued down the classics train doing ‘Blackness of the Night,’ ‘First Cut is the Deepest,’ ‘Here Comes My Baby,’ ‘Miles from Nowhere,’ and ‘Sitting,’ before finally breaking into one of the songs he wrote as Yusuf. “Thinking ‘Bout You” was a perfect bridge from old and new, and made me immediately take note that I needed to buy his album Roadslinger. A thought that was only reaffirmed two songs later when he said the title track from that album.
As Stevens moved seamlessly from song to song, interjecting personal anecdotes about the tour and his life since we last saw him take the stage in LA, the lighting of the set changed from the reds and oranges of sunrise, to the blues and purples of the night sky. The movements from day to night from song to song added to the sense of passage of time as he played hits from his almost fifty year career.
Although Cat Stevens made his name as a prolific songwriter, his covers have made their mark as well. This concert was full of carefully selected classics that revealed his personal musical inspirations. From Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready,’ to the Beatle’s ‘All you need is love,’ each cover reminded the audience that this was not your average musician and meaning is everything important to him as an artist. Never was this more evident than when he did a cover of Sam Cooke’s ‘Another Saturday Night.’ As a song that has been in his repertoire for years, he included it in the concert, but since the original lyrics no longer fit with his new lifestyle, he made some adjustments. He explained the change by saying that, because he was “no longer chasing women,” he took some liberties and he made the song more about work. Although it’s still a beautiful song, in the end, I think I would have preferred him to skip the cover and choose a song whose meaning still resonated with him. All in all though, it was a small blip in an otherwise flawless night.
As the concert rolled deep into the second set, it began to feel like he could keep the show going all night, ticking off songs from his seemingly never-ending list of classics. But when he played ‘Wild World’ and ‘Fathers and Sons’ back to back, it was clear the night was winding down. I could not think of a more perfect way to end the second set than with those two songs that define who he was both as Cat Stevens and who is now as Yusuf Islam. During ‘Fathers and Sons,’ I was reminded of the father and son sitting to my right, and when I looked over, all of the anxiousness and boredom I sensed at the beginning of the show was replaced by the look of yet another generation being put under Cat Stevens’ spell.
Not quite done yet, Cat Stevens took the stage once more for a four song encore of ‘Gold Digger,’ ‘Peace Train,’ ‘Sad Lisa,’ and, with the oranges and reds of the sunrise lighting cue rising again, he finished with a fitting ‘Morning has Broken.’ As the night’s final song came to an end, I got the distinct sense that this was a man who wasn’t finished. For an artist who walked away from it all thirty years ago, he looked like someone who has so much more to say. The Peace Train tour may have ended in LA, but I expect we won’t have to wait another thirty years to see him again. And until then, I can fill the days rediscovering those albums I fell in love with years ago, while also getting to know the music of Yusef that spoke to me all night.