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Live review: Cat Stevens then, Yusuf Islam last night at El Rey


There were no hard hats in sight Monday night at the El Rey Theatre, but Yusuf Islam conducted a pretty impressive display of bridge-building during his first Los Angeles performance in more than 30 years, back when he was still known as Cat Stevens.

It was an invitation-only event, potentially a prelude to an actual concert tour, and the audience was dotted with celebs, including Josh Groban, Colin Farrell, Rosanna Arquette, Cameron Crowe and Jake (Body by Jake) Steinfeld.

Yusuf made the connection between his current music from his new “Roadsinger” album to the gentle folk-rock classics from the early ‘70s — not such a big task,  given that his signature grainy voice sounded pretty much the same as it did back when Richard Nixon was president. The link to his past was helped along by the presence of guitarist Alun Davies, who was a key member of his band back then, and provided beautifully colorful lead and rhythm accompaniment on such Cat Stevens cornerstone tunes as “Father and Son” and “Where Do the Children Play.”

He also made it effortless for fans to reconnect with him personally, even for those who can’t fully comprehend the scope of his conversion three decades ago to the Islamic faith. His new songs reflect a perspective of one who, unlike Bono, has found what he’s looking for spiritually, but never in a proselytizing or patronizing way.

As he sang in a new song inspired by medieval German theologian Meister Eckhart, “To be what you must, you must give up what you are.” That one opens with a piano lick cribbed from “Sitting,” the opening track from 1972’s “Catch Bull at Four” album, another deft link from past to present.

He used a long introduction to “The Wind” to give a thumbnail sketch of the many turns his life has taken, without robbing the open-hearted innocence he’s cultivated for ages, and which made him something of a Donovan for the ‘70s.

That may be the most challenging bridge he’s working on — one that can reach from a bygone age of hope into the age of snark that permeates television, the blogosphere and beyond.

He’d examined cynicism and fear long ago in “Wild World,” which he sang with opening and closing sections in Zulu from a latter-day re-recording of his early hit, then said, “I don’t believe in that philosophy any more.” He then offered up the new album’s title track, about a troubadour (representing all spiritual seekers) who ultimately finds his way.

When Yusuf dusted off “Peace Train” for his final encore, there wasn’t a grimace in sight either. He’d ridden the train across the bridge to the part in the human spirit that refuses to give up hope for a better world.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo: Yusuf Islam performs with Alun Davies during a soundcheck for his concert at the El Rey. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (12)

This guy claims Cold Play stole one of his song. Considering they are both mediocre artists, who cares, really?

I would love to know how old are you Neil and which musicians you believe to be the creme of the crop. I don't know anything about Coldplay so I can't comment on them but I have been listening to Yusuf/Cat Stevens for many years now and he is far from mediocre. Have you ever listened to Mona Bone Jakon, Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, or Catch Bull at Four? I bet that you haven't because if you had, you wouldn't be calling him mediocre. Even if the music isn't your cup of tea, how can you not see the brilliance of the songs. The music industry needs more musicians like Yusuf because it's pathetic.

I have enjoyed his music as long as I can remember. I am glad he was able to finally make it here and still wanted to come. His songs have always had a good message, his lyrics so profound. I hope he does do a tour, I would very much like to finally see him live.

Just saw him on Leno. I was upstairs but could tell immediately that it was him. This is great. I'm thrilled that he is back.

Yusuf's music will always be timeless. It is unfortunate that many Gen-x never got to appreciate it due to his absense. Yusuf, James Taylor, Donovan, etc. music has to be listened for its lyrics and poetry and the music is the bonus. I would urge everyone to go through his library to see what they have missed out on.

I would like to know his concert schedual

Kudos to Christina for explaining to Neil about the depth of Cat Steven/Yusuf Islam. At one time he was the voice of a Generation in a time of turmoil not much different than to day except much more death.

I was only 12 when I first heard his music. He Sounds the same, the compositions amazing as always..profound simplicity!!!

Randy Lewis’ fawning review of Yusuf Islam’s concert put a nauseating cap on weeks of coverage of Yusuf Islam’s return to performing music. Journalists of all stripes, at several networks and newspapers (including the Los Angeles Times) have essentially given Yusuf a “pass” on his direct and specific advocacy of murder. Yusuf barely bothers to deny it, periodically suggesting that he has been misunderstood, but never retracting the statements he previously made. He doesn’t need to, since no journalist has even pressed him on the issue. The LA Times used it’s allegedly limited print space to publish a fawning review of Yusuf’s return, without even a mention of the controversy, and I certainly haven’t seen you offer Salman Rushdie equal time. The man was threatened with death. One of his translators was killed. He was in hiding for years. “Yusuf” endorsed it all and, in some published interviews, still blames Rushdie for these events. The journalistic community has done nothing to hold him accountable.

Even more disappointing is the fact that so many people are attending his concert. So many people in this country seem to think nothing of endorsing torture for those who allegedly support terrorisim, no matter how flimsy the evidence against them. Yet here is a man who has openly, and on the record, endorsed murder, and people don’t seem to mind paying to hear him sing. Given that Yusuf has not recanted his extremist views, where exactly do the “fans” think that their money is going, if they support Yusuf and his work?

I paste below a link to a letter written by Salman Rushdie in the London Sunday Telegraph. (Scroll down within that page.)


Obviously the letter has been edited, but Rushdie still makes his point. Perhaps you should consider giving him as much space in your paper as you gave to extolling the man who called for his death. Journalists are supposed to inform readers, not pander to stardom. For all of your newspaper’s pious statements about supporting America’s security and the importance of the first amendment, you and other journalists have given a hero’s welcome to someone who advocates killing others over their beliefs. You should be ashamed of yourselves, and you should immediately do whatever is necessary to ensure that Rushdie gets equal time.

Lyn and Steve Greenberg

Yes, I definitely think it's "wonderful" that the guy who openly advocated the death of Salman Rushdie, and even offered to help kill him, is being welcomed back by fawning fans who are willing to support torture of terrorists, yet give their money to a man who has advocated murder. There is no question that Yusuf is talented, and also no question that he supported the fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, to the point of suggesting specific ways to accomplish this. He has never been held accountable for his statements, and he blames Rushdie for the controversy. Whatever the perceived "message" of his music, his real-life statements actively support murder for someone who challenges his view of Islam. Lots of people make pretty music. He has thrown away his talent in service of those who kill. The press should be doing its job to expose his hypocracy, and none of us should be putting money in the pockets of someone who supports extremism.

Cat Steven/Yusuf Islam is a musical genius! I've been a fan most of my 51 years of life. I own Mona Bone Jakon,Tea for the Tillerman,Teaser and the Firecat and Catch Bull at Four on Long Playing Records from a bygone era. I'd bet most generation X er's don't know what an Album is? I agree fully with Christina.Niel must be under 15 years old.The music the little dweeb listens to is today's garbage! If Yusuf Islam ever comes to play at any venue in Florida,I'm getting tickets for every show he plays at here in the Sunshine state.I have played his music on cassette tapes until I wore the music off the tapes. Luckily,I also still have a collection of those 4 magical albums in perfect condition. I will pray to Jesus he goes on tour and comes to Florida! He is a great poet and storyteller(lyricist)and musician,just like Jim Morrison of the Doors was and Peter Gabriel of Genesis,Donovan and James Taylor.I thank the United States of America's government for finally allowing this great musical artist back into our great nation. He was denied entry a few years back because of his faith.Good to see the government is for the people once in a while.

Yusuf Islam was always a wonderful human being - embracing Islam has only perfected him even more. Since the begining of mankind humans have always made mistakes - unofortunantly being in the public eye you are expected to be to perfect and the fact that you are human is forgotten. I suggest Lyn and Steve listen to Yusuf's song 'Misunderstood' from his An Other Cup album and open your hearts a little, try and dig down deep in your human instint for some commpasion in the hope of finding something special in a truly wonderful human being. A most remarkable spirit the earth has been blessed with.


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