Celebrating the 50th anniversary of his first hit "I Love My Dog," British songwriting legend and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Yusuf/Cat Stevens kicked off his A Cat's Attic acoustic tour in Toronto on Monday night at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. Like an old friend (with a lot of talent) inviting you up to his cabin in the fall, he pulled out his guitar and entertained us with stories about his rise, and ultimate retreat, as a singer-songwriter, from discovering the Beatles to discovering God.
The 68-year-old skipped the 27 years he got out of the music business -- when he almost drowned, called out to God, and began his conversion to Islam and lifelong service to education and humanitarianism -- suggesting we'll have to read about it in his book because "it's too long a story." Although he didn't mention this in the two-and-a-half-hour show, a portion of ticket sales from the tour will be donated to UNICEF and International Rescue Committee to help child refugees through his charity Small Kindness.
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He appeared onstage in front of a backdrop depicting a moonlit skyline with London's Big Ben, indicating the locale for much of the autobiographical stories he was about to tell. When the curtain lifted, behind it was a theater-type set -- a wood cabin, a lamppost, a couple of houses (one with a smoking chimney), and some props: a lamp, chairs, vinyl albums and a record player. His bandmates, guitarist Eric Appapoulay (filling in for mainstay Alun Davis, who was back home in London with a bit of an illness) and multi-instrumentalist Kwame Yaboah, were tucked away, off to the side, in the light of the "moon shadow."
So it was a metaphorical attic Yusuf sorted through, as he played more than 30 songs from his career, beginning with "Where Do the Children Play?" from 1970's Tea for the Tillerman, and "If You Want to Sing Out Sing Out," which first appeared in the 1971 film Harold & Maude. Like most folk singers -- even eventual reclusive ones -- he has a knack for storytelling, and he soon sucked us into his story with humor and fun facts.
He reminisced about being a kid in London 50 years ago, his crush on actress Natalie Wood, as audio clips from West Side Story played. "I hope you don't mind these musical intrusions," he said of "America" and "Somewhere," continuing, "…But then what blew my musical world apart was these four lads from Liverpool," he said singing "Love Me Do," along with the audience, and talking about how his big brother always had lots of girlfriends but the ones he liked never liked him.
"Here Comes My Baby" from 1967's Matthew & Son followed, before he sat down in front of the cabin to put on some vinyl, "Twist and Shout," slapping his knee as he listened. "I started with my own songs," he recalled, going into "The First Cut Is the Deepest," from 1967's New Masters, that became a hit for four artists, including Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow. "I didn't always write great songs like that," he said.
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He then mentioned producer Mike Hurst, who cut "I Love My Dog," his first single, and revealed how he had stolen the tune from "an obscure" American jazz artist Yusef Lateel. Noting the first name (Stevens changed his name in 1977 after converting to Islam), the audience joined him in a laugh.
Since A Cat's Attic is a story and song tour, giving up more of the tales will only ruin it for others who might be catching one of the remaining 11 dates. Rest assured, you get all the timeless classics: "Wild World," "Father & Son," "Morning Has Broken," "Peace Train" and "Moonshadow" -- but with some tidbits that range from his "nemesis Neil Diamond" to landing in the hospital with tuberculosis, the life-directing spiritual book A Secret Path to Steve Jobs and MP3s (OK, we'll give this one up because it's way too cool: "Father & Son" was the very first digital MP3).
"Is this OK that we're doing this?" Yusuf asked at one point. "When I kind of changed, I got this massive feeling of misconception, rejection and my ability to transcend across borders was met with a kind of retaliation in some sense," he said, before singing "Be What You Must" from Back to Earth, his last album for 28 years.
"I came back to try and build bridges, right?" he said, to big claps. "I started making music again in 2006. My son brought back the guitar to the house." He then performed "Maybe There's a World" from his comeback album, 2006's An Other Cup, which he segued into "All You Need Is Love" -- coming full-circle about the four lads from Liverpool he talked about early in the evening. "I always wanted to be a Beatle," he confessed.
Where Do the Children Play?
If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out
Somewhere (West Side Story)
Love Me Do (Beatles cover)
Here Comes My Baby
The First Cut Is the Deepest
I Love My Dog
Matthew & Son (with Tears For Fears Mad World snippet)
Northern Wind (The Death of Billy the Kid)
A Bad Night
I Wish, I Wish
Lilywhite/Don't Be Shy
On the Road to Find Out
Miles From Nowhere
Father and Son
You Can Do (Whatever)
Morning Has Broken
How Can I Tell You
Another Saturday Night (Sam Cooke cover)
People Get Ready (The Impressions cover)
Be What You Must
Just Another Night
Maybe There's a World/All You Need Is Love
You Are My Sunshine (Pine Ridge Boys cover)
Oh Very Young