Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Cat Stevens/Yusuf Peace Train Tour - Nokia Theatre, December 14, 2014

How to describe one of the best and most rewarding shows I've ever seen is the dilemma facing me after seeing Cat Stevens for the first time in concert after waiting for over forty years. I had given up on the chance of his returning to the concert stage years ago, after he dropped out of public life for family and religious reasons. He became persona non grata for a lot of bigoted and narrow-minded people after his conversion to Islam in the late 1970s, changing his name to Yusuf Islam. It seemed he would remain a fondly (or not, depending on your politics) remembered pop superstar from a bygone age who we lost to religion, and that was that.

There were occasional noises here and there and a few random appearances beginning in the 1990s, giving hope that he might return to music at some point in the future. He credits his son with bringing a guitar back into the house to pursue his own music, which Yusuf picked up and began playing again. Acknowledging how much he missed making music, and spurred on to keep going, the result was the release of his first new recording of non- and less-religious music in almost thirty years called An Other Cup in 2006. I thought how remarkable his voice still sounded after all those years.

Still, the thought of new concerts seemed remote at best, considering the resentment of all things Muslim in the still raw aftermath of 9/11, and his short-lived (and ludicrous) appearance on our no-fly lists in the mid 00s. So the announcement this fall of a series of shows across the U.S. to mark his return to the land of rock and roll was as surprising as it was welcome. How I scored a ticket was pure luck as the tickets were gone almost as soon as the box office opened.

My own personal history with Cat Stevens goes back to April 1971 when I was 20 and purchased Tea For The Tillerman, because "Wild World" was a hit single, and it became one of the cornerstones of my record collection. When Harold and Maude opened that December, I was already well aware of the music that helped that movie go from overlooked box-office flop to cult film within a few years. It came and went so quickly in it's first release that I didn't even get to see it until it was screened a year later at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge, Mass in December 1972, before it became a cult classic. By 1974 it had been rediscovered and was playing year-long engagements in many cities across the U.S.A.

In spite of his disappearance, his music survived decade after decade, never losing a drop of it's emotional power or its relevance. He'd struck a nerve in the popular culture and we were determined not to give it up, even if he never re-emerged. I, and many others, never stopped listening to his records and I always regretted not seeing him on one of his tours through Boston.

By the time Sunday, December 14th rolled around, I had settled into a low grade excitement which only intensified as the time to take the subway downtown approached. Never having been to the Nokia Theatre before, I made sure to get there with plenty of time to spare. The buzz of anticipation was palpable among the crowd standing in line to get in, no matter what their age. The range of his appeal was still overwhelming and undeniable.

A glowing crowd filled the lobbies of the Nokia and I wanted to enjoy a beer and take in the whole scene before heading to my seat in the loge section. The stage was set up as a run down railroad station stop with a sign reading "Los Angeles" (interchangeable with the tour stops) and a backdrop that looked like a prairie landscape out of the dream ballet in the movie of Oklahoma!.

Onto this evocative and plainly symbolic set wandered Yusuf/Cat Stevens and members of his touring band and the first notes of "The Wind" hit the audience like a ton of bricks. Cue: squeals of delight! His voice sounded exactly the same. The arrangement, updated but remarkably the same, and the song itself was emotionally perfect for the state of excitement in the crowd, proudly stating the 'journey' theme of the whole show: "I let my music take me where my heart wants to go."

Ordinarily, I would complain about the size of the venue, as I was a quarter of a mile away from the stage but for this, it didn't matter. I was zeroed in on the stage. The next song was "Don't Be Shy" and that started the water works. To think he would perform one of the two songs he wrote specifically for Harold and Maude as the second song was more than I could take, through the tears I could envision Bud Cort hanging himself.

He seemed so at ease and comfortable on stage, and was obviously moved by the love he felt coming from the audience, that he was chatty and chummy, making the huge venue far more intimate. By the time he sang two more of his early hits, it was clear he would be reviewing as many of his most popular songs, along with newer compositions, as he could fit in his 32-plus song set. I think the whole audience relaxed together and realized we were in for a special night.

Surrounded by a powerful flock of musicians, including long-time guitarist Alun Davies, who has been with him since the beginning, and pianists, violinists, horn players, drummers, they made a formidable rock band. The songs stayed close to their original arrangements with only additional augmentation when called for. Passages of almost solo acoustic performances by Yusuf were contrasted with richly orchestrated celebrations, each appropriate to the song being rendered.

He seemed eager to acknowledge the wide range of influences that have affected his own songwriting, including songs by Curtis Mayfield, Edgar Winter, Sam Cook, and, beautifully, Procol Harum ("The Devil Came From Kansas"). His wonderful recent song "Maybe There's A World" proved his songwriting skills are undiminished, which then segued into a version of Lennon's "All You Need Is Love" (which had all us old hippies singing along) and it was was a high point of the first act. As soon as he said the words Harold and Maude the audience erupted into wild applause. (pretty amazing for a movie that could have been forgotten 45 years ago) and he played "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out", as the tears flowed copiously leading to an intermission.

The second act was even longer than the first, and continued alternating covers, old classics and new music. An additional thrill was seeing Cat Stevens playing the piano again, which he did on half a dozen numbers. Highlights for me were hearing "Oh Very Young", Where Do The Children Play?", and especially "Father and Son". I think that with all the singing he has been doing on this tour that his voice is showing far more flexibility that it did a few years ago, when he first started singing again. The muscles are oiled and in tip top shape. I can't believe he was ever better, even back 35 years ago. I'm glad we were the last stop on the tour, to enjoy the fruits of all that non-stop singing for the last month since he started this tour in London in November.

He came back for four songs on encore which included the climactic "Peace Train", "Sad Lisa" (on the piano again) and ultimately "Morning Has Broken" resulting in a sequence of standing ovations. I was like putty in his hands by this point, We all were.The love and appreciation he exuded was strong enough to envelope all 7000 plus audience members in the Nokia Theatre. It's a concert experience I will never forget, and here it is, 48 hours later and I'm still in a state of euphoria.


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