The marquee outside Wilshire Boulevard’s El Rey Theater read, “Yusuf the Roadsinger World Tour,” above a more crucial second line of “Cat Stevens.”
Yes, the sign included quote marks around the name of a man who had not appeared on a Los Angeles stage in 33 years — giving the sagely ‘70s troubadour not only second billing, but the implication that it was not completely the guy everyone remembers.
Yusuf, born Steven Geoirgiou 60 years ago, had no problem or issues to returning to his Cat Stevens skin on Monday at this invite-only concert. For a little over an hour, the music of Cat Stevens and the new songs of Yusuf, which share timbre and tone with his classics, transported a rapt audience of label executives, contest winners, managers, concert promoters … and Chris Isaak.
Not surprisingly, there were a few overly emotional fans in tears. “Yusuf, you’re the best,” one shouted, breaking the silence that preceded each song. Yusuf would have none of it, shaking his head “no,” pointing upward and saying, “He is.”
Acceptance of the music of Stevens has had a roller-coaster ride over the last 30 years. He has been viewed as a crackpot and a turncoat, his musical style fell out of favor by the 1980s, and a string of misconceptions and misquotes regarding Salmon Rushdie and the interpretation of the Koran led to Stevens being ostracized by many of the fans still riding the peace train.
But his soft-spoken melodies and kindly yet cautious lyrics have connected with new audiences through reissues, the soundtrack of “Harold and Maude” and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who has performed Stevens’ songs during his solo gigs.
Bearded and with close-cropped hair that’s more salt than pepper, he beamed throughout the night, astonished that so many of his songs would be greeted with extended ovations.
“We’ve all got obligations,” he said before performing “Just Another Night,” a song that appeared on the final Stevens album “Back to Earth,” the album he believed would be his final pop statement ever.
His obligation, he has decided, is to share his musical gifts and his past; the ultimate “Behind the Music” saga, in which a pop singer converts to Muslim at his commercial peak, has a new ending.
His first song could not have been more apt. “You’re welcome here,” he sang in his first song, “Welcome Home,” the first track on his new CD, “Roadsinger” — his second secular release since he ended his retirement in 2006. The song explores time, travel and finding your place as a human, subjects he explored 30-plus years ago when he brought a simply stated, worldly vision to the singer-songwriter movement.
From there, the Stevens material came in: “Lillywhite” from “Mona Bone Jakon,” a song he has recently reconnected with. “Don’t Be Shy” beamed with the lilt of the original; “Where Do the Children Play” earned him his first standing ovation of the night.
“Wild World,” the one tune that revealed the constriction of age in his voice, was performed in Zulu and English. He sat at a side table to sing “The Wind.” The encores of “Father & Son” and “Peace Train” bonded artist and fan, the former delivered to a room of held breaths, the latter greeted with a joyous sing-along.
Alun Davies, Stevens‘ second guitarist who was crucial to the sound of albums such as “Tea for the Tillerman” and “Teaser and the Firecat,” augmented the three-piece band, making a quiet yet bold statement about Yusuf’s acceptance of his past. Kenny Passarelli, one of the great rock bassists of the 1970s, joined the band to play on the new songs.
The anecdotes were more often about the connections with the past than any new revelation. He mentioned the Koran only once, but he also mentioned other books crucial to his life — “The Secret Path” and “The Alchemy of Happiness.” He also expressed hope that the musical based on his music will be onstage this fall.
Newer songs “Be What You Must” and “All Kinds of Rises” stood up well against the older material, suggesting a full evening of Cat/Yusuf would be a sure sell-out at theaters across the U.S. But fans should not get their hopes up just yet: It is not even certain that Yusuf will make up a New York performance that was missed after the issuance of work permits was delayed.
Meanwhile, he’s embarking on a global promotional, and it is likely each country his visits will get the grand total of one invite-only concert.