Concert Review with PHOTOS: Yusuf Islam / Cat Stevens

Photos by Reuben Raj

Photos by Reuben Raj

By Jake Ebdale

Artist: Yusuf Islam / Cat Stevens

Date / Venue: Wednesday December 13th - Spark Arena, Auckland

Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens, has just played a highly entertaining, back-catalogue travelling show at Spark Arena, and I find myself drifting off to sleep after the show, the opening chords of ‘Moonshadow’ playing through my headphones. Those lilting, otherworldly acoustic notes send you to another place. This happened live too. ‘Moonshadow’ was the first of many mass sing-alongs from an enthusiastic Auckland crowd. You can just feel the energy change in a venue sometimes, when that perfectly timed song hits. Sometimes you take on the weight, the importance of what you’re witnessing. ‘Moonshadow’ was one of those moments, with so many more to come during the course of the two-hour gig.

Unlike many of his five-decade contemporaries, Yusuf Islam’s voice has hardly changed, which only lends those classic songs added depth and character, rather than awkward key changes and missed notes. The Cat classics all ring with a heavy sense of nostalgia – my dad would play many of these songs to me as a kid, Tea for the Tillerman especially – and the themes still feel relevant, Islam adapting lyrics for the 21st century during songs

‘I Love My Dog’ was another early highlight, given a slinky funk workout courtesy of the talented backing band of multi-instrumentalists. ‘Where Do the Children Play?’, with that immortal build-up to the final chorus, was transcendental, as was ‘Wild World’. Those two tracks, back to back, will be one of my great concert moments. ‘Matthew and Son’ was released over 50 years ago, and sounds like a strange lost Bond theme now – and I’ve never like it, but it sort of worked here. That he chose to play slight misfires like ‘The Hurt’ and ‘Remember the Days’ were reminders that Islam was more than an acoustic troubadour (if only he could dig out the lost steppers grail ‘Was Dog a Doughnut?’, frequently used in DJ sets).

The tour is named ‘A Cat’s Attic’, and is structured (or not structured) that way. He rummages around his catalogue, picks out the gems and plays them straight, and it’s that early material from the first three albums that shines, especially without that 60s Tom Jones brass - ‘Here Comes My Baby’ and the scrappy ‘A Bad Night’, for example. Later on, there are songs that soothe (‘The Wind’, ‘Don’t Be Shy’), but then he hits you with something like ‘Rubylove’, a Greek banger.

The newer material from 2017’s brilliant, Grammy-nominated Laughing Apple album (named after a 1967 track) slotted in seamlessly with the older classics, which also points to how there’s nothing, really, in a name. All the wonderful songwriting and storytelling is still there, still strong – and has been since his ‘return to form’ over a decade ago with An Other Cup. We’re so fortunate to get a great run of performers in our wee country recently, with Paul McCartney only a few days away, and this show proved that Yusuf is one of the best to do it, even covering some of Macca’s work last night (‘From Me to You’, as well as the George Harrison tune ‘Here Comes the Sun’).

There were hardly any missteps here. The second set was all killer. When you think the hits are done, there’s still ‘Father and Son’, ‘Peace Train’ and ‘Morning Has Broken’. It’s staggering, really. Here’s a great, natural, relaxed performer who knows his place in the world; someone strong in his faith but who chooses not to preach. It’s a strange sense of comfort to know Yusuf, or Cat, or whatever you want to call him, has been here all along with these simple, universal songs. They bring you back down to Earth.

Yusuf plays his second and final show at Spark Arena tonight. Not to be missed.