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

May 12, 2009 |  2:35 pm

Yusuf500

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

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