Growing up in Maine, without any hip older brother to speak of, my exposure to cool music was about as limited as one could imagine. I listened to the radio while driving around with my friends, and as a result, I grew up paying fealty to the classic rock establishment of The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and any other hoary old screamer or crooner who got air time on 101.7.
It was only after I got to college and discovered the likes of Pavement, Joy Division, and Elliot Smith that I pushed back on the old establishment. Listening to “Sweet Home Alabama” or hearing Robert Plant howl about elves and orcs suddenly seemed pretty damn stupid.
I turned my back almost immediately on my old idols — if I was going to listen to something from music’s bygone days, it was going to be the Velvet Underground or Television, not some saccharine singer-songwriter or cartoonish rock band. Almost overnight, I turned into an unapologetic music elitist (I’ve since tempered my strict listening restrictions, making me much less of an asshole now. At least I hope.)
Yet even during my most strident days as a music snob, I never fell out of love with Cat Stevens, a troubadour who seemingly embodied everything I loathed from that era. He sang whimsical, simple ballads and embraced all the clumsy clichés about love and peace that formed the foundation for the facile nature of hippies.
Maybe it was because he was so earnest — completely unapologetic about his belief that love could cure all ills — that made him so enduring to me. Maybe it was his rich, honey-coated tenor, or the fact that no matter how hard I tried to resist, his songs conjured up an immense well of nostalgia — a pining for a simple time that never existed for me, but one I wanted to visit nonetheless. Maybe it was me delighting in being a contrarian — hating Paul Simon and James Taylor, but loving their carbon copy.
Whatever the reason, I always adored Cat Stevens, and when I was presented with the opportunity to see him at the Davies Symphony Hall earlier this year, I couldn’t believe my good luck. It wasn’t just about seeing someone from an almost mythological time — back when you could tour with Jimi Hendrix and hang out with Brian Jones — it was also about treasuring the very nature of Cat Stevens performing again.
As a converted Muslim, he famously disavowed pop music, and over the course of a 27-year-period, he refused to perform secular tunes. Only in recent times did he temper his aversion to the industry that made him famous, therefore opening up the possibility that he could play once again front of his fans.
Those fans, of course, are mostly Baby Boomers, and when my wife and I attended the October 3 show — titled “A Cat's Attic” — we were easily the youngest people in our section (and we aren’t exactly teenagers). But that didn’t matter, and it didn’t matter that we were watching the show in the relatively stuffy confines of an opera house. When Cat Stevens took the stage, I got lost.
He opened with “Where do the Children Play,” an uncomplicated, gorgeous hymn, and from there he delved into his amazing early catalog, including the ebullient “Here Comes My Baby” and the mournful “The First Cut is the Deepest.” He trotted out famous songs like “Matthew and Son,” as well as deeper cuts (“Miles from Nowhere,” “On the Road to Find Out”).
After taking a brief intermission, Stevens (or Yusuf Islam, which he goes by now), came back with his most beloved recordings, wistfully crooning “Moonshadow,” “Oh Very Young,” and “Peace Train.” It was his rendition of “Father and Son” — his cherished paean to generational differences — that drew the biggest roar from the crowd. I don’t care how nakedly sentimental that song may be, I fucking love it, and always will.
Stevens offered narration throughout the two-and-a-half hour performance, giving background details and inside information about the creation of certain tunes. He talked about how “Father and Son” was a result of his abandoned rock opera on the Russian Revolution.
He also spoke candidly about his faith, which might have frightened some of the (probably numerous) atheists in the crowd. I was glad he spoke about his discovery of Islam — it humanized him a previously untold way, and addressed questions that many audience members must have been thinking about. He explained that he found religion after swimming in the choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean off Malibu — that he was drowning and prayed to God to save him. He also spoke about how he decided to play pop songs again after his young son handed him a guitar and asked him about his music.
It all made for an overwhelmingly emotional night, reaching a peak when closed his encore with “Morning Has Broken.” Even at 68 years old, Stevens sang with the luster and clarity of a young man, his voice sounding as profound and clean that night as it did when he recorded the song 45 years earlier. After that final coda, everyone silently grasped the serenity of the moment — appreciating a master plying over his craft, perhaps for the final time.
My Top 10 Shows of 2016:
- 1.) Cat Stevens, Davies Symphony Hall, October 3
- 2.) Julien Baker, Bottom of the Hill, February 25
- 3.) Wolf Parade, Bowery Ballroom (NYC), May 20
- 4.) The Strokes, The Wiltern (LA), July 25
- 5.) Bon Iver, Fox Theater, October 19
- 6.) Whitney, The Independent, April 22
- 7.) …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, The Chapel, September 24
- 8.) Thee Oh Sees, The Chapel, November 30
- 9.) Baroness, The Regency Ballroom, June 2
- 10.) M83, Bill Graham Auditorium, October 27
My Top Two Shows I Didn’t Go To, Inexplicably:
- 1.) Spiral Stairs Birthday Party (with Special Guests), The Chapel, October 1. (Why not, Will? They played fucking “Summer Babe!!”)
- 2.) Porches/Japanese Breakfast, The Independent, September 18. (Why not Will? Why? Why?)
My Top 10 Albums of 2016
- 1.) Whitney, Light Upon the Lake
- 2.) Japanese Breakfast, Psychopomp
- 3.) LVL UP, Return to Love
- 4.) Mitski, Puberty 2
- 5.) Frank Ocean, Blonde
- 6.) Lost Under Heaven, Spiritual Songs For Lovers to Sing
- 7.) Porches, Pool
- 8.) Hamilton + Rostam, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine
- 9.) White Lung, Paradise
- 10.) Bon Iver, 22, A Million
Honorable Mentions: Sioux Falls, Rot Forever; Big Thief, Masterpiece; Preoccupations, s/t; Kevin Morby, Singing Saw, Nick Cave, Skeleton Tree; Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial; Frankie Cosmos, The Next Thing; American Wrestlers, Goodbye Terrible Youth; Hinds, Leave Me AloneTags: Best Of 2016, Cat Stevens