The singer-songwriter now known simply as Yusuf didn’t mention his religion by name during his Monday show at New York’s Beacon Theatre. But at one point – late in the second of two deeply moving sets filled with classic songs – he did reference the backlash he encountered during the years when he left behind both his old stage moniker, Cat Stevens, and his career as a secular musician to pursue a life of Islamic faith. When he spoke to the crowd about inciting an “awful lot of anger,” everyone in attendance knew what he meant.
“We’re sorry!” a man in the crowd yelled in response to the remark. “I’m all forgiven!” said Yusuf, miming a sigh of relief. Though his public image may never fully recover from the hateful remarks he made against Salman Rushdie in 1989 amid the heated controversy over the author’s The Satanic Verses, the legendary artist’s current stage show, billed as an evening in “A Cat’s Attic,” nevertheless felt like a heartfelt olive branch extended to fans who might be inclined to give him another shot.
The show’s title wasn’t just an abstract idea; it was a blueprint for how the concert looked and felt. For his first full New York performance in 40 years, Yusuf entered the stage strumming the opening chords of “Where Do the Children Play?” while standing in front of a backdrop showing an urban skyline at night, illuminated by a gleaming full moon. The curtain soon fell away, revealing a cutaway of an attic, which, as Yusuf explained, was a re-creation of his childhood sanctuary above the London restaurant his parents owned. Memorabilia filled the set: a Van Gogh painting (signifying the singer’s early love of visual art); posters for 2001, West Side Story and Stevens’ own 1976 Majikat tour; a blue jersey with the number 33 that he often sported in the Seventies. The message was clear: Yusuf was inviting the audience into his home. Recalling his earliest influences, the singer actually retreated into the room to play the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” on a phonograph, referring to John Lennon’s shrieking vocal turn as “the primal scream that brought us into existence.”
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The first set offered a chronological survey of Stevens’ Sixties hits. Backed by Eric Appapoulay on guitar and vocals and Kwame Yeboah on bass and percussion – a tasteful duo who sounded busker intimate or rock-band intense as the moment demanded – he performed songs ranging from the wrenching (“The First Cut Is the Deepest”) to the frivolous (“I Love My Dog,” Stevens’ debut single, released 50 years ago this month) in quick succession, offering anecdotes and asides in the style of a one-man theatrical show. He recalled mock-ruefully how the Monkees prevented him from getting to Number One, credited onetime tourmate Jimi Hendrix for scrambling his brain with psychedelics and digressed during “Matthew and Son” to chide Tears for Fears for borrowing the song’s bridge melody for their “Mad World” chorus.
Dressed like a cool uncle in a green shirt and brown leather jacket, Yusuf played much of the set seated in a chair, his feet dangling just above the floor. If his demeanor was casual, his vocals were sublime. His trademark upper-register snarl has softened somewhat, and he seemed to struggle with the daring melodic leaps on songs such as “On the Road to Find Out,” but the Yusuf of today is very much the same dazzlingly supple vocalist Cat Stevens was then.
During the second set, Yusuf seemed to kick into overdrive, condensing his anecdotes and playing some of his best-loved songs with otherworldly focus and intensity. After a charming intro during which he drank tea as Tea for the Tillerman‘s closing title track played over the PA, he sat at the piano for the first time, delivering a crisp, poignant felt version of that album’s “Sad Lisa.” He moved back to guitar for an endearing “Don’t Be Shy” (with a coyly smiling reference to “that movie,” Harold and Maude) and worked his way up to the set’s emotional peak, a staggering “Father and Son” that brought the crowd to its feet. The audience remained rapt during deeper cuts from 1972’s Catch Bull at Four – an ecstatic “Sitting” and a hushed “Boy With the Moon and Star on His Head,” a song he’d renounced after his conversion and that he implored the New York audience “not to believe” due to its depiction of a verboten premarital fling.
A gorgeous Impressions cover, “People Get Ready,” signified Yusuf’s religious awakening, and two well-chosen tracks from his 2000s comeback albums chronicled the path back to music: An Other Cup‘s wonder-filled “Maybe There’s a World” – mashed up here with the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” – and the title track to 2009’s Roadsinger, an account of his years of alienation from his fans. (“I realized I still had a job to do,” he said of his return to the public eye.) The concert’s second set often had the feeling of a campfire singalong, yet one led by the man who is arguably the patron saint of the form, a writer and singer of disarmingly plainspoken songs about spiritual seeking that somehow never succumb to corniness or insincerity.
In keeping with that spirit, he paused near the end of the show to shout out recent Disney film Zootopia, praising its message of tolerance. He quoted the film’s hero, a rabbit named Judy Hopps, who stands up against “friction and conflict” among once-harmonious animal species: “No matter what type of animal you are, change starts with you.” Yusuf didn’t need to mention Donald Trump’s fearmongering or the latest wave of Islamophobia directly in order to invoke a parallel with 2016 America. A joyous “Peace Train,” which found the majority of the crowd on its feet, clapping and singing along, drove home his message.
The lovefest continued during a brief encore that featured beautiful, unadorned renditions of signature songs “Wild World” and “Morning Has Broken.” Yusuf apologized for not being able to stick around, citing the venue’s union curfew, and left the stage flashing peace signs with both hands.
Overall, the show felt like one artist’s humble attempt to repair his fractured relationship with his listening public. For more than two hours, Yusuf laid out all his charms – his easy storytelling gifts, his universally beloved songs – in the face of a world that, as depicted in “Roadsinger,” once branded him as unwelcome. Whether or not Yusuf is truly off the hook is for each listener to decide, but on a purely musical level, the concert was a gracious and touching reanimation of one of the great songbooks in modern pop. Those who step into Yusuf’s attic will leave transformed.
“Where Do the Children Play?”
“If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out”
“Somewhere” (P.J. Proby cover)
“Love Me Do” (Beatles cover)
“Here Comes My Baby”
“The First Cut Is the Deepest”
“I Love My Dog”
“Matthew and Son”
“A Bad Night”
“Fill My Eyes”
“I Wish, I Wish”
“Miles From Nowhere”
“On the Road to Find Out”
“Don’t Be Shy”
“Father and Son”
“How Can I Tell You”
“Boy With a Moon and Star on His Head”
“Oh Very Young”
“People Get Ready” (Impressions cover)
“Be What You Must”
“Maybe There’s a World” / “All You Need Is Love” (Beatles cover)
“Morning Has Broken”