The grousing from some fans claiming that Cat Stevens shouldn’t have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year because his music was too subdued to qualify as “rock” ignored a more relevant point.
In his decade-plus run as a folk-influenced '70s pop star before exiting the music business in 1979 to raise a family and explore his conversion to Islam, the British singer-songwriter consistently examined a key aspect of rock’s fundamental mission: to throw off the shackles of previous generations' attitudes in the personal search for greater truth.
On the final stop of his first tour in 35 years Sunday night, the musician who now performs as Yusuf/Cat Stevens beamed with gratitude at the outpouring from a sold-out audience at the 7,100-capacity Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. It was a reception that served as a loud reminder of how strongly his songs still resonate four decades later.
Most of his songs touched on a search of one kind or another: “Miles From Nowhere,” with its open-ended quest for meaning; “Wild World,” with its cautionary note to a loved one hellbent on seeking new experiences, and the anthemic “Peace Train.”
Indeed, he’s calling the new round of shows the Peace Train … Late Again Tour, a wry reference both to his long absence from the concert trail and to a still-unfulfilled wish expressed in that 1971 Top 10 hit:
I’ve been smiling lately
Dreaming about the world as one
And I believe it could be
Some day it’s going to come
“That train hasn’t arrived yet,” Yusuf gently told the crowd. Such a realization could lead to disillusionment, but instead he simply offered the suggestion that “In the meantime, we can sing about it.”
He did so for nearly 2½ hours, including a 25-minute intermission, on a stage set replicating an Old West train depot, reminiscent of the one in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
Yusuf also invoked the theme earlier in the evening with a rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s gospel-infused hit “People Get Ready,” which dovetailed musically with the raison d’etre of Yusuf’s new album, “Tell 'Em I’m Gone,” in which he indulges his early passion for American blues and R&B.
That sound also surfaced with a muscular reading of Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” — effectively deflecting any “too soft to rock” jabs — and a potent minor-key reworking of the classic “You Are My Sunshine.”
Some of the new album's songs he included — notably “Gold Digger,” inspired by the South African miner’s strike of 1946 — are as rewarding as his '70s work.
For the Record
3:13 p.m.: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that a South African miner’s strike was in 1948 and gave birth to the African National Congress. The strike was in 1946, and the ANC was founded in 1912.
For the most part, he remained faithful to meticulously arranged original versions of such cornerstone songs as “Father and Son,” “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” (from Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude”), “Trouble” and “Moonshadow.” The soft-sandpaper edges of his baritone voice still carry the same reassurance they delivered 40 years ago.
But he and his six-piece band, which included his longtime fellow guitarist Alun Davies, also reinvented a couple of numbers. He shifted the tone of “Bitterblue” to make it rock less and think more, and modified the chord progression in the verses of “Morning Has Broken,” which departed (not entirely successfully) from Stevens' gorgeous original version, which was inspired by an early 20th century Christian hymn.
And he sheepishly explained, but stopped short of apologizing for, changing lyrics in Sam Cooke’s “Another Saturday Night,” noting that as a 66-year-old husband, father and grandfather, he could no longer in good conscience sing about “How I wish I had some chick to talk to,” which he revised to “How I wish I had someone to work for.”
It all seemed to work for the crowd, which consisted largely of fans who were alive during Stevens' heyday. The show brought out celebs as well, including Sean Penn and Ace Frehley of KISS. There also was a smattering of audience members in their teens and 20s, happily singing along.
“I really enjoyed this,” Yusuf said near the end of the show. “If I’d known I would enjoy it this much, I might not have stayed away so long.”
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