It is really hard to convey the impact certain singers, especially from such tumultuous time like the 1960’s, had on people’s lives and on culture and society in general. People talk about fans becoming obsessed with artists like The Beatles, Dylan, Cohen and yes, Cat Stevens, elevating them to Godlike status. People were looking for answers for big questions and sometimes seemed to find them in these remarkable musicians, lyricists, poets and songwriters. If you watch The Dylan doco Don’t Look Back, you can see that zealotry in the eyes of his followers, they are looking to him like a deity, and he just wants to get on and sing some songs. These were artists who spoke deeply to people, especially young people, who had never been spoken to this way before. More than mere pop stars, many of these artists had important things to say, questions of their own to raise and became the soundtrack to an awakening world, where things did not have to stay the way they had always been.
So when you get the opportunity to see somebody as legendary as Cat Stevens it is an opportunity that should be grabbed with both hands. Leonard Cohen under the stars at A Day on the Green, was one of the most incredible nights ever. Brilliant band, fantastic songs, a warm and generous legend. Next month I am expecting McCartney to deliver a massive selection of career-spanning songs that people have loved for decades and will love forever. He will do those Beatles songs, the way people want to hear them, the Wings songs the way they were made and only pop in a couple of new songs, because he knows what his audience wants. Not Dylan of course, he is not interested in either his audience, or what they want to hear. All his tours are an exercise in how much the audience can endure while delivering them as little as humanly possible of they would love to receive.
Seeing an artist such as Yusuf Cat Stevens, this evening, makes Dylan’s stance all the more galling. Because tonight we have an performer with a forty year career, who has gone from pop star, to song writing guru, to activist, to turning his back on music altogether and becoming a controversial figure; who then returned to re-embrace music he had turned away from. Tonight we have an absolute legendary artist, performing (just about) every song you could ever wish to hear him sing, with good humour, a stunning voice, immaculate band and mesmerized audience. Tonight is an exceptional night for everybody involved.
A crowd of around 14,000 file into Botanic Park through some of the strictest security measures ever seen in Adelaide. There is a strict ‘no bags’ policy – the only bag allowed in is an A4 clear plastic one. No umbrellas, no covers for your folding chairs, no cameras (even accredited media photographers have had to take their photos at the afternoon sound check). There was some complaining, but in the wake of the Ariana Grande stadium bomb in Manchester earlier in the year, this is likely to be the new norm for massive shows in the foreseeable future.
Taking to the stage with no fanfare, Yusuf performs Don’t Be Shy solo on acoustic guitar. It’s a song from 1972, made famous by it’s inclusion on the movie soundtrack for cult classic Harold and Maude and immediately reveals how special tonight is going to be. Where Do the Children Play (Tea For The Tillerman, 1972) is utterly glorious. For the first few songs he is slowly joined by various band members, but each new arrival is casual, musicians wandering on stage towards the end of a finishing song and sitting down to enjoy the track before joining and adding to the layers on the next one. It is not a big band, mostly three exceptional musicians, who swap instruments and sometimes play more than one at a time. The bass player will play a bass drum with his foot, or the guitar player will somehow play a solo on keyboards while still playing guitar. Like the stage set up (looking like a London train platform), and screen projections, it is all elegantly simple, beautiful and remarkable.
The first set is full of favourites like The First Cut is The Deepest (also a hit for Rod Stewart), People Get Ready (The Impressions written by Curtis Mayfield). Another Harold & Maude song, Blackness of the Night, which he has recently reworked on his The Laughing Apple, leads into a rockin’ take of Miles from Nowhere (Tillerman) and a well received The Wind from another classic album Teaser & The Firecat from 1971. A reimagining of a children’s classic Mary & The Little Lamb, is lovely. He explains how he pinched the melody of a little known song by an artist called Yusuf LeTife (‘who would ever hear music from somebody called Yusuf’ he quips) and turned it into the massive hit I Love My Dog. I was just noting in my head how great it was that he wasn’t messing around with the arrangements of these great songs, when he transforms Dog into a version which is a lot more rhythmic. Then drops a reggae version of Days in The Old School Yard. Now in less skilled hands this might have been a tactical error, but both are terrific. Schoolyard in particular is great.
After a brief intermission, Yusuf reappears, again unannounced, and gives us a beautiful Sad Lisa from Tillerman. Tea for The Tillerman and Teaser & The Firecat were like Carole Kings Tapestry or Don McLean’s American Pie albums, absolutely crucial for every record collection of the time. People grew up on those songs and now almost have them as part of their DNA. They know every word, they love every song like an old friend.
The second half of the show is set in his attic (the tour is called A Cat’s Attic) and the stage set is set up like an attic with old suitcases, records and record players and other ‘attic-y’ stuff. It’s a nice conceit. And it is a more straight forward autobiographical journey, basically telling the Cat Stevens story with songs and stories. He tells us of his love for West Side Story (and Natalie Wood) before playing a portion of There’s a Place For Us from the soundtrack. He talks of even as a very young boy, he knew he wanted to be an artist, as a painter initially but when The Beatles came along there was a new dream. The band have returned wearing matching black and white striped tops and knock out a great version of The Fab Four’s From Me To You. He explains that he had difficulty learning to play other people’s songs, so started to write his own instead. He plays his first ever single.
Matthew and Son is one of the best songs ever written in my opinion. It is one of those songs that tells an intricate story by going into the minutia of the every day, Ray Davies from the Kinks has always been exceptional at those songs, as has Jarvis Cocker from Pulp. Matthew and Son, takes you on a journey through the drudgery of working for the family business with few prospects and less joy.
There’s a five minute break,
And that’s all you take,
For a cup of cold coffee
And a piece of cake
In the middle of this he finds time to take a light hearted dig Tears For Fears who seem to have appropriated a chunk of the middle eight as the basis of their classic Mad World. Stevens sings
He’s got people who’ve been working fifty years,
No-one give them more money cos nobody cares
And I find it kind of funny
How this kind of sounds the same.
It’s subtle, but I loved it. Listen to both songs and you’ll see the difference. His story sees him quickly become unhappy with being a pop star, being pressured by the big boss man to churn out the hits. He got tuberculosis and was out of action for a year, and when he returned it was on his own terms with a fist full of amazing songs of depth and emotion.
The park erupts as he starts to sing Wild World, and with good reason. It is close to a perfect song. It is a song about the end of a love. But it’s wishing your leaving lover good things in their future without you, because despite it being over you still love them. It’s a beautiful melody, the vocal is amazing. It’s a song anybody would wish to be sung as they leave to start a new life.
Now that I’ve lost everything to you
You say you wanna start something new
And it’s breakin’ my heart you’re leavin’
Baby, I’m grievin’ But if you wanna leave, take good care I hope you have a lot of nice things to wear
But then a lot of nice things turn bad out there
Down in the Gold section various people have started jumping up to dance and been swiftly told to sit back down by security. It is one of the disadvantages of tiered price seats, in as far as folk have paid big bucks to be down front and want to be able to see the stage, and it is an older crowd. Alternatively there are songs that people are compelled to move to and it’s a shame they have to spend half their favourite song arguing with security about whether their right to dance is less important than somebody else’s right to see. Sometime around this point I see Cat’s personal security guy (who had been supervising the photographers earlier in the day) head over to one such dispute and tell the security to let the people dance. It was one of my favourite moments from tonight. It might be time to consider having a VIP dancing section, off to the sides or something.
A third Harold & Maude song, If You Want to Sing Out Sing Out is warmly received. Morning Has Broken turns us into a massed choir. It’s a British Christian hymn from 1931, which he covered on Teaser and it was a monster hit and was played endlessly and taught in primary schools by desperately ‘with it’ music teachers (possibly why it is my least favourite of his songs). Tonight it is communal and wonderful. When he starts Moonshadow the entire audience is roaring myself included. It is my favourite Cat song and it is absolutely sensational tonight (even if he did mess up the words a tad).
He explains his family were Greek Cypriot and a huge cheer goes up. “Wait how many of you are there?” The massive cheer would imply ‘many’. And introduces Ruby Love, with it’s Zorba The Greek style bouzouki solo (played on mandolin tonight) and people are streaming into the aisle’s to dance. Oh Very Young is the only song he does from 1974’s Buddah & The Chocolate Box, which is followed by The Hurt, the only song from his ’73 album Foreigner.
He tells about his near death experience, nearly drowning at an LA beach and his cry for help to a higher power which he believed saved his life and changed it forever. It happened decades ago and he must tell this story every night, but it is clear that it is still an incredibly impactful and important moment of his life. He plays The Beatles Here Come The Sun, to explain what it was like for him. And it’s a odd thing, because there is a bit of an elephant in the room (ironic as we are very close to the Zoo), in that everybody is aware that faith he has embraced is Islam, dedicating his life to living by its principles. His full chosen name is Yusuf Islam. But he dropped the second name for albums and live performances and even when talking about his spiritual awakening he never uses the ‘I’ word, not once. The closest he comes is mentioning The Last Prophet briefly. He says a lot of rubbish has been written about him and his religion, but we will have to read his book to hear his side, (*Stevens released one book in 2014 Why I Still Carry a Guitar, but a full biography is on the way). For explanation he does a song from Laughing Apple called See What Love Has Done To Me.
He finishes up with a double punch of genius and classic songs. Father & Son and the epic Peace Train. Either of which would be a song to retire after writing. Father and Son is such a beautiful song, (there are tears) and Peace Train such a driving song of hope and positivity. Some people are heading off to beat the crowds (an action I have never been able to comprehend, missing some of the most crucial songs so you can get to the taxi quicker – nope!). Those early leavers miss out on a jubilant Another Saturday Night and Can’t Keep it In. Both absolute gems and everybody is on their feet dancing joyously. Things are wound up with another Beatles song, All You Need Is Love, which really sums up the whole vibe of this concert.
Stevens is a perfectionist, wanting everything to be just so, yet there are some endearing mishaps along the way, the odd forgotten lyric or muddled ending. His music and these songs helped define a generation and will remain eternal in the history of popular music. Tonight Yusuf / Cat Stevens paid excellent tribute to, not only his musical history, but also to the audience to whom it means so very much.
Review by Ian Bell