Yusuf, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, performed his first American concert in three decades Monday night at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles, mingling early hits with emotional new songs recorded from his just-released album, Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night). It was gentle music of quiet drama, with messages of hope and spirituality, peace and troubled romance. Amid jangly acoustic guitars on “All Kinds of Roses,” the bearded singer-songwriter repeated, “So many feelings, so many feelings …”
The beard is mostly gray now, and he stood behind the microphone with the presence of a serene holy man, but the voice had lost none if its warmth from the ’70s, and his newest songs fit easily among such hits as “Peace Train” and “Wild World.” In a performance that lasted just over an hour, Yusuf gave equal weight to his newest work, beginning with “Welcome Home,” which opens the new album, as fans watched from chairs spread across the El Rey’s dance floor.
Past and present collided during “The Rain,” a song dating back to some Cat Stevens demos from 1968, but left unfinished until the new album, with words just as evocative in the present: “Everybody’s thinking about the flood, wondering if the water’s going to turn to blood/Things are looking bad, everybody in the world’s looking so sad.”
A scheduled May 3rd concert in New York was canceled over a brief work-visa snag, leaving the Los Angeles show his only U.S. date remaining this year, though others are expected. Monday’s concert was his first in the U.S. since a religious conversion to Islam in the late 1970s, when he changed his name to Yusuf Islam and retired from secular music.
Roadsinger is Yusuf’s second studio album of secular songs since emerging from retirement in 2006. (His final concert performance as Cat Stevens was in 1979.) He returns to live performing with his gift for emotional connection intact, his voice rising and pleading on the gently sentimental “Where Do the Children Play” and amid the jangly folk and dreamy slide work of the new album’s title song.
Late in the set, Yusuf told of the many “breaks” in his life, from surviving tuberculosis and a near-drowning off the Malibu coast to the successes of his early career and discovering the Koran, and seeing how his “secret path became a straight path.”
The five-piece band’s elegant presentation was not unlike that of a Leonard Cohen or Joe Henry, with soft lighting and a band dressed in formal shades of black. But there was a bit of the hippie left in Yusuf, with a backdrop depicting an old VW van decorated by a peace sign.
Before diving into the shimmering acoustic melody of “Peace Train” to close the evening, a fan shouted to the former Cat Stevens, excitedly calling him “the best!” Yusuf smiled. “No,” he said, pointing skyward, “He’s the best, he’s the best.”