It’s a Wild, but Peaceful, World for the Former Cat Stevens

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Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, at the Beacon Theater. Credit Hilary Swift for The New York Times

NYT Review

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Nostalgia, invocations of peace and love, and diplomatic positioning were all part of “A Cat’s Attic,” a gentle retrospective concert by Yusuf, the former Cat Stevens. Two shows at the Beacon Theater were his first full New York concerts since 1976, the year before he converted to Islam, changed his full name to Yusuf Islam and spent nearly three decades away from secular music.

Before that, Cat Stevens, born Steven Demetre Georgiou in London, had been known as a voice of kindly introspection, picking an acoustic guitar and singing about affection and a search for peace. Even his hit breakup song, “Wild World,” strove for compassion: “Hope you make a lot of nice friends out there.” His voice was reedy, grainy and prematurely grizzled; decades later, his tone hasn’t changed. Slender, soft-spoken and gray-haired at 68, Yusuf reminisced on Tuesday night about his unlikely life story and sang what had been staples of early-1970s FM radio: songs like “Peace Train,” “How Can I Tell You” and “Father and Son,” which, he revealed onstage, was initially supposed to be part of a musical about the Russian Revolution.

Longtime fans reverently sang along, ready to let Yusuf’s most controversial moment — his 1989 endorsement of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the author Salman Rushdie — recede behind his later, more peaceable sentiments. He has claimed he was misinterpreted; on Tuesday, his second set included the Animals’ hit “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”

Yusuf, who switched to piano for songs like “Sad Lisa,” was accompanied by Eric Appapoulay on guitar and Kwame Yeboah on bass, percussion and keyboards, playing subdued versions of his old arrangements. The stage backdrop was an attic room recalling the “bedsit” where he wrote many of his early hits; on one wall, it had a tour poster of Cat Stevens in 1976, black-haired and bearded. “Welcome to my little house,” he said.

The biography that Yusuf told onstage — his “journey” — hinged on setbacks leading to epiphanies. In the 1960s, he was a striving hitmaker in England, reaching the charts with songs like “Matthew and Son” — a peppy tune about exploited labor — and “Here Comes My Baby,” which he slyly updated on Tuesday with a mention of texting.

But after a pop-star phase, he developed tuberculosis, and when he returned to songwriting he was transformed: quieter, more thoughtful, more spiritually curious. A musical trademark in many of his songs is a skipped beat, or a bar of 3/4 time in a 4/4 song, which gives the tune a subtle jolt. Songs from his 1968 album, “Mona Bone Jakon” — “Trouble,” “Katmandu” — were among the concert’s understated gems. Years before his conversion, he was already singing about quests for answers in songs like “I Wish, I Wish,” “Miles from Nowhere” and “On the Road to Find Out,” which were all part of his first set.

His second set drew on the 1970s, with songs like the folky “The Boy With a Moon and Star on His Head” — a fable that he carefully announced “never happened,” presumably because it revolves around extramarital sex — and “Angelsea,” with its heaving riff. In 1976, Cat Stevens was swimming off Malibu, Calif., he said, when he nearly drowned and desperately prayed to God, who rescued him by sending a wave. His conversion followed in 1977; though he didn’t use the word “Islam” onstage, he said, “I took my message, and I walked away” and that he also faced “aggressive aversion to what I had chosen.”

The songs he played from the 2000s, after he returned to a pop career, were friendly and nondenominational but resolute: “To be what you must, you must give up what you are,” he sang in one from 2009. He meshed his tentatively utopian “Maybe There’s a World” with the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” itself a skipped-beat song. And after he played some hits, he concluded with “Morning Has Broken”: originally a Christian hymn and still tenderly devout.

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