UPPER DARBY, PA—At his first concert in the USA since the ’70s, Cat Stevens—who also goes by the name Yusuf these days—took on his catalogue, a new album and the controversy that has dogged him ever since he took on Islam. It was a magical night in celebration of the songs that defined an era when longhaired gents carrying acoustic guitars ruled the airwaves.
At the Tower Theatre in Philadelphia—a grand building known for hosting legendary acts like Marley, Springsteen and the Grateful Dead—Stevens held his own. He looked happy and content up there, like a rock and roll prophet from the pulpit of cool, dressed in a sport jacket, penny loafers, a neatly trimmed grey beard and roundish glasses that hid a wide-eyed grin.
Kind of professorial, but not quite, he commanded onstage switching between acoustic Gibson guitars and even funked things up on a silver-toned Dan electro for a few numbers. Guitarist Alun Davies—who was an integral part of Stevens’ band since the 1970 album Mona Bone Jakon, and toured extensively with him in the ’70s—interwove his delicate fingerpicking throughout the night, setting the Catman free to let a voice sing out that’s aged like fine wine.
Due to intense security and a ticket policy whereby each ticket had to be picked up personally by concertgoers, the show started 45 minutes late. Stevens apologized from the stage, adding, “I waited for you this time,” and then, “What’s a few minutes between friends?” By the time he fingerpicked the intro to the opener “The Wind” from 1971’s Teaser And The Firecat, all the delays, politics and godly differences were forgotten.
Bedtime lullabies for grownups, the songs cry out to that child within like stoneyed nursery rhymes. Watching Stevens deftly moving from the guitar to the piano up there was like watching a wizard relearning a craft that he began as a pop sensation in the ’60s and ended with the last album from his ’70s heyday, Back To Earth.
His two-set performance took on the greatest hits, some stellar album cuts plus some bluesy songs from his new one, Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, that showcased a more rocking side. On “Here Comes My Baby,” Stevens added the line, “You’re forever texting me on the phone,” to the crowd’s laughter. He ended “First Cut Is The Deepest” adding, “I’ve reclaimed the song,” and indeed he did! On “Katmandu,” Stevens and Davies shared the spotlight. Davies intertwined his folksy notes around Stevens’ chunky strumming, taking us back to the mystic and majesty of a bygone era.
Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” opened the second set, loosening things up a bit as the band rocked out, then gelled into a controlled unit that countered the dense song structure of Stevens’ originals. “Editing Floor Blues” was an autobiographical funkster set in shuffle mode that took on the man’s misquotes in the media ever so cleverly as a harmonica wailed. He played “The Foreigner Suite” on piano in response to Facebook requests. “Trouble” was delivered solo in the spotlight solo as the hits “Wild World,” “Oh Very Young” and “Morning Has Broken” followed.
“Peace Train” and “Father and Son” ended the second set. “Sad Lisa” was a poignant tearjerker that he played on piano. The closer, “Miles From Nowhere,” started off slowly, then took on the divine. Closing the circle on a redemptive journey from pop icon to rocker and back to the spiritual reins that lies at the core of his music, this stop of the Peace Train left a lot of fans at the station “thinking about the good things to come.”