CAT STEVENS: There’s a Million Things to Be

When I told my father that I was lucky enough to snag a ticket to Cat Steven’s second of two nights at New York City’s legendary Beacon Theatre, he asked, “Are you sure you won’t be seeing Yusuf Islam?” That question encapsulates this once-brilliant artist’s troubled modern legacy, and probably echoes the reservations of many of his fans debating whether or not to catch A Cat’s Attic: Yusuf/Cat Stevens 50 Year Anniversary Tour 2016. Though that mouthful of a name may not answer the question, I’m happy to report that if you’re lucky enough to live in a city where the tour plans to stop, then you’re promised a night that predominantly features the songs that we all know and love by the artist whose name appears on the latter half of that slash.

Yet as the tour’s official moniker suggests, his fans won’t just be treated to a simple evening featuring their beloved Cat mindlessly playing one greatest hit after another. Instead, Yusuf has crafted an unexpectedly structured concert that actually feels like a response to these types of questions that he knows many of his followers possess regarding his enigmatic career. “A Cat’s Attic” may seem like an odd name – especially since he’s not touring behind an album of the same name, nor any album for that matter – but it provides a very apt description for the night, both literally and thematically.

Shortly after walking on stage strumming a few of those iconic, uniquely-Cat Stevens acoustic chords, the curtain behind him adorned with his hometown London skyline slowly rose to reveal a quite theatrical set that he explained approximated his loft in the attic of his parents’ café where he wrote many of his greatest songs. Above the set – amongst which stood a backing band of two, who added musical accompaniment and vocal harmonies to capture the original recordings’ full sound[1] – was a bright moon, and what else is a Cat standing underneath supposed to do but howl up at it?

And that’s exactly what this Cat beautifully did for nearly 35 songs.[2]  Yet instead of just mindlessly playing all of the hits that everyone wants to hear, Yusuf used the night as a way to re-introduce himself to his fans by taking them on a chronological journey through his career. Flanked by the aforementioned personal backdrop, Cat further enhanced the theatrical nature of the evening by interspersing the setlist – which was actually broken into two ‘acts’ divided by an intermission – with personal recollections that basically told the story of his life, serving as the narrative backbone guiding us through the concert. He even talked about and then breathtakingly performed some of the songs by other artists that inspired him to pursue a career in music. As such, the proceedings at times felt less like a traditional concert and more like a quasi-Broadway show. In fact, I actually believe that the tour could end with a short stint at a real theatre on the Great White Way.

But if an enterprising producer does invite him to set up shop in such a way,[3] Yusuf needs to strengthen the relationship between his stories and songs. Unless he intended to present an abstract telling of his life, it proved difficult to track the real events that inspired so many of his hits. His exceedingly endearing personality as a geriatric hipster certainly came across in his colloquial discourses, but his immediately apparent lack of a clear script definitely obscured his ability to communicate the intricacies of his fascinating life’s story. Though I appreciated the effort, the show in its current state fails to strike the proper, interrelated balance between performances of his deep oeuvre and his explorations of how his life helped create such an oeuvre.[4]

But that was really my only quibble with the entire night, and it honestly pales in comparison to being treated to one of the great long-lost artists performing some of the most insightful pop songs ever written in mostly the same acoustic style that we’ve all been listening to for ages?[5] Sure, his voice may have lost a few octaves,[6] and the melodies for many of his songs sound awfully similar when hearing them in such a condensed manner,[7] but it was still Cat Stevens up there evocatively singing Cat Stevens,[8] which is honestly an opportunity that I never thought I’d be afforded in my lifetime.

Lest I give an incorrect impression, however, I’d be remiss not to note that he does indeed perform a plethora of his lesser known later work, including songs from the Yusuf portion of his career. Though he spends far less time focusing on this stretch,[9] being able to hear his ‘classic’ tracks alongside his more controversial, lesser appreciated, later tunes reveals how closely they’re actually related.[10] No one would have any doubt that the same artist wrote all of the songs, and really the main differences between them is that their subjects changed from a romantic focus to a more spiritual, celestial one. Some of this music does come across as excessively preachy, but our collective distaste with religious music of any kind undoubtedly resulted in the widely held false impression that he had totally abandoned the musical roots that initially made him so successful. Combined with the stories that he shared linking the contents of his disparate life, the concert made me aware that his life’s work basically charts the story of his life, specifically how Cat Stevens became Yusuf Islam.

In a way, the night did provide an answer to my dad’s question: as the slash in the name of the tour clearly states, we were treated to both Cat Stevens and Yusuf. And why wouldn’t we? By bringing us along on this reappraisal of his entire life, he makes us – and maybe even himself – realize that the man standing on stage is both Cat Stevens and Yusuf Islam. Though he’s spent a majority of his life forsaking his original artistic alter ego, he now seems aware in his old(er) age that he could’ve been a beloved artist and a successful activist all along. He made a mistake by drawing such a stark distinction between the two, and we’d be equally in the wrong by judging him based solely on one of his two identities.

Luckily, my audience had absolutely no problem accepting Cat/Yusuf back into our arms. Though the night did feel like an opportunity for a phenomenal artist to reintroduce himself to his loving fans, it was also simultaneously an all-out celebration of the opportunity to finally hear so many of our most cherished songs once again. After a lifetime’s worth of pent-up enthusiasm for his music, this crowd was finally given the chance to express their gratitude live in person for the man responsible for creating so much fulfilling art. In an age where we feel as divided as ever – thanks in no small part to the rampant Islamophobia all across this country – who wouldn’t want to spend two and a half hours in the company of others all enjoying songs that speak to the power of unity, written by both Cat Stevens and Yusuf?

Though he spent very little time talking about the years he devoted himself to Islam,[11] in no way did he try to pretend like he wasn’t a Muslim. Similarly, I’d imagine almost no one in the audience was unaware of his religious beliefs. But the past discriminatory ignorance that has prevented many from accepting Yusuf – and even led to some rejecting the once-adored work of Cat Stevens – was nowhere to be found in the Beacon Theatre. Instead, this was a testament to music’s capacity to transcend the barriers we erect for ourselves through communal bliss. Yusuf has treated his audiences flippantly in the past – which he somewhat apologized for here – and many have definitely disrespected his life’s path before, but no one allowed any of those mistakes to deter from the reciprocal love flowing to and from the stage and the crowd all night long.

With Trump spewing out hateful bigotry against all Muslims seemingly wherever anyone turns, it was a powerful symbol of perseverance to witness one of the most infamous white Muslims in the world – someone who has unfairly received his doses of hatred just for being Muslim – so joyously accepted by a crowd of all races, nationalities, and religions rocking out to a song of total acceptance like “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out.” After so many years of keeping his voice to himself, Cat Stevens is finally singing out again, and in rifling through the forgotten things contained in the attic that is his memory to help us understand his life’s story, he’s allowing everyone to see and hear him anew. If this peace train rolls through your city, make sure to grab a ticket and get onboard – who knows when he’ll be back again, and who he’ll be…

img_4884
The tour’s poster – if he’s coming to your city, go go go!

FOOTNOTES

[1] Even though most of his well-known material is widely considered solely acoustic fare, the band’s contributions here – and my subsequent re-visitations to his body of work in the last 24 hours – made me realize just how much his songs have to offer sonically.

[2] Only one of which I’ll specify to avoid spoiling the wonderful surprises in store for all of his fans who’ve missed having this Cat in their lives for so long.

[3] Though I’d prefer for someone to commission him to write a new musical, especially after finding out he’s had a lifelong affinity for the form (even though he’s failed at such ventures in the past).

[4] Based on the setlist differences between the two nights at the Beacon – most notably in how he changed up the order of many of the songs – it’s clear he’s still working through the best way to pull off this concept.

[5] A few songs were re-arranged to allow for the backing band-members to take brief, sometimes even electric guitar solos.

[6] It sounded like one of the two backing band members hit the higher notes in his stead, but tough to say for sure because they were mostly shrouded in darkness for much of the night.

[7] He self-deprecatingly joked that he basically only used three chords throughout his entire career.

[8] No doubt aided by the mood-appropriate theatrical lighting –

[9] Which actually negatively affects his attempt to communicate his life’s story because he doesn’t sufficiently dwell on this part of his life. His first set – or Act 1 – establishes an alternating structure of a story leading into the song either directly or tangentially related to that story into another story into another song and so on. Act 2, however, largely deviates from this superior model, with long stretches of songs – however enjoyable – being played without any introductory stories. Perhaps this was the theatre half of my brain talking, but the second act actually seemed to drag on due to this lack of narrative focus; it’s odd to feel like an artist whose music you love so much actually played too many songs.

[10] I also had no idea just how many good songs he has from his career’s infancy up until today.

[11] Mostly because this was still a concert and he produced very little music that would be prompted by telling stories about this time in his life.

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One thought on “CAT STEVENS: There’s a Million Things to Be

  1. Such an older soul you
    must embody.
    Cat’s songwriting was
    some of my favorite in 1972
    pre-Bruce. Glad you are well.

    I surprised myself by stepping away from theAus/NZ sale (for now).
    Be good to yourself and your
    awesome folks. ✌🏼️🎸

    Like

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