MANHATTAN, NY—Yusuf took the crowd for a ride on the peace train with bassist Kwame Yeboah and guitarist Eric Appapoulay (longtime collaborator Alun Davies couldn’t make the show due to health issues) and laid down the steady rhythms and lead guitar lines countering the man’s delicate strumming and finger picking on his Gibson J-200 acoustic.
Playing on a set depicting the attic room located above his parents’ restaurant where he learned his craft, dreamt and played, Yusuf laced into a catalog of nursery rhymes and bedtime lullabies for adults and mystics in what was his first headlining gig in the city in 40 years.
Growing up in London’s theatre district, show tunes and in particular West Side Story and The Beatles were early influences. He played “Twist And Shout” on an old turntable then called Lennon’s vocal “the primal scream that brought us into existence.” A tour with Hendrix and then a bout with tuberculosis completed his metamorphosis from a pop star to confessional singer-songwriter as he fell in sync with the times and the likes of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, amongst others.
By the late ’70s he gave up the music world for a spiritual one. At the Beacon he showcased the changes eloquently, going from pop star (“I Love My Dog”) to tin pan alley songsmith (“The First Cut Is The Deepest”) to seeker (“Miles From Nowhere”) and on back through the spiritual that he cleverly disguised on the Curtis Mayfield song “People Get Ready.”
He completed the cycle with a shot at redemption after a 27-year hiatus (“I came back because I realized I had a job to do!”) and some bad press with Roadsinger, from the 2009 album, that was an autobiographical account of his being “misunderstood” over some controversial statements that he made against Salman Rushdie.
He introduced the song admitting he created “an awful lot of anger” as a concertgoer, then shouted, “We’re sorry,” and Yusuf countered, “I’m all forgiven?” releasing some of the tension regarding his 1989 comments. He then masterfully played all the hits and some lesser-known deep album cuts (“Sad Lisa,” “Katmandu,” “Into White”), creating a glorious mosaic of tunes that defined an era yet still sound fresh.
White bearded, wearing penny loafers, a chilled out casual jacket and glasses, he looked like a college professor up there with a twinkle in his eye. His voice was spot on the entire night, though the raspy blown tenor has been replaced by a mellower, yet still divine one.
Ending the regular set with “Peace Train,” the respectful crowd quietly worked its way up to the stage, danced and sang in community. “Wild World” and then the traditional English sing-along “Morning Has Broken” ended the night as everyone joined in on the harmonies, taking us all back to the garden as Yusuf exited the stage flashing peace signs and the Cat’s meow.
First Set: Where Do The Children Play?/If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out/Somewhere/Love Me Do/Here Comes My Baby/The First Cut Is The Deepest/I Love My Dog/Matthew And Son/A Bad Night/Trouble/Fill My Eyes/Katmandu/I Wish, I Wish/Miles From Nowhere/On The Road To Find Out
Second Set: Sad Lisa/Don’t Be Shy/Into White/Father And Son/Moonshadow/How Can I Tell You/Sitting/Boy With A Moon And Star On His Head/Ruins/Oh Very Young/Novim’s Nightmare/People Get Ready/Be What You Must/Roadsinger/Maybe There’s A World/All You Need Is Love/Peace Train