In his former incarnation as Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam had a reputation as a bit of a self-serious fellow, the young man with the furrowed brow contemplating eternal mysteries while finger-picking an acoustic guitar.
But before he became an earnest troubadour, the teenage Stevens caused a stir in ‘60s Swinging London with his pop songwriting prowess, notably delivering tunes such as the Tremeloes’ “Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut is the Deepest,” a hit single for P.P. Arnold in ’67 and later Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow.
His place on that scene, complete with his love of R&B and blues, made a welcome appearance at Islam’s reverentially received concert Tuesday at the sold-out Chicago Theatre. The show was something of an event for Yusuf/Cat fans, who have been waiting more than 30 years for a U.S. tour. The singer famously dropped out of the music business in the late ‘70s to fully immerse himself in his spiritual studies, and left behind a legacy of eight straight million-selling albums and a dozen hit singles.
Of course, the 66-year-old singer-songwriter showed up Tuesday as well, in a grayer, more avuncular and affable incarnation. That’s the guy most of the fans paid to see, the one who launched countless guitar-strumming coffeehouse imitators in the ‘70s alongside such similarly inclined craftsmen as James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne and Jim Croce. Shifting between guitar and piano, Islam reprised the songs that made him such an appealing figure to the more contemplative wing of the counter-culture.
His gentle folk songs gave off a mystical air, thinly disguising a discontent with the shortcomings of the material world, the disconnect between generations, and the journey between stations evoked by the fake old-timey train platform that served as the stage. The 29-song two-hour show, split by a half-hour break, opened with “The Wind,” one of several songs loosely based on the wandering minstrel’s spiritual quest. He was “Miles from Nowhere” but taking his time, an appealing philosophy for anyone trying to escape the mundane.
In a life where innocence is lost and the planet is becoming a wasteland, Islam romanticized childhood as a lost refuge (“Where do the Children Play,” [Remember the Days of the] Old Schoolyard,” “Oh Very Young”). To grow up and leave home was cause for tears in the generational struggle of “Father and Son” and the anxiety of “Wild World.” On many of these vintage tunes, Islam kept his voice a conversational purr as though trying not to wake the guests in the spare bedroom. There was also a ponderous reminder that he once dabbled in progressive rock (an excerpt from “Foreigner Suite”), in sharp contrast to the simple elegance and indelible melodies of “Morning Has Broken” and “Moonshadow.”
Islam honored not only a period in his life that made him a reluctant pop star, but also the era that preceded it, and the one he’s living in now. Since he’s returned to recording and performing in recent years, he’s released three increasingly feisty albums. His most recent songs do some venting and finger-pointing (“Editing Floor Blues,” “I was Raised in Babylon”) edged in blues-steeped rock arrangements. He turned “You are My Sunshine” into a trancy blues with a North African camel-walking beat, and brought a bounce to Leadbelly’s “Take This Hammer.”
Best of all was a fierce cover of Procol Harum’s “The Devil Came from Kansas,” with enthusiastic assists from two younger acolytes, vocalist Will Oldham (aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy) and guitarist Matt Sweeney. The singer also dropped in a tongue-in-cheek line about cellphones into “Here Comes My Baby,” and shook an appreciative fist at his band after a snappy take on Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” The Cat Stevens of the ‘70s remains an alluring pop figure for addressing the big questions with somber purpose. But at the Chicago Theatre, it sure looked like it actually might be more fun to be Yusuf Islam right now.