For an artist like Yusuf Islam, this made sense. The songwriter came to fame in the 1960s and '70s as Cat Stevens, and after writing some of the most beloved songs of his generation, had a religious conversion and disappeared from the stage for nearly three decades. So last night, the fact that he was there, in the flesh and ready to play songs from his full catalogue, was already quite remarkable.
To the audience's clear delight, he then avoided coasting on the rareness of the occasion and brought a highly personal career-spanning performance that was variously light-hearted and confessional. As the first performance of his "Cat's Attic" tour, which marks the 50th anniversary of first hit single "I Love My Dog," the evening revolved around Yusuf Islam digging deep into his catalogue and narrating his musical evolution. With an anecdote connecting each song, he explained how his initial ambitions as a teenager getting into songwriting were to avoid working hard and have lots of girlfriends.
This led into performances of early hits, like "Here Comes My Baby" and "The First Cut is the Deepest," now recast in the light of youthful folly, as well as a cover of the Beatles' "Love Me Do." The Beatles, he said, were his early musical role models, and his inspiration for pursuing a life of rock'n'roll. By 19, he quipped, "I was drinking, I was smoking — the things you do when you tour with Hendrix."
Once the wave of, "Holy crap, he toured with Hendrix," finished rolling across the audience, he used this as an entrance point into the quest for meaning and spiritual enlightenment that informed the rest of his career. In this context, familiar songs like "The Wind" and "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" seemed new and fresh, transcending their latter day lives as campfire sing-along tunes and recapturing the youthful and poignant energy that spawned them.
While Yusuf Islam's history of shifting identities, religious conversion and on-and-off-again attitude toward performing might draw comparisons to Bob Dylan, last night's performance recalled another elder statesman: Tom Waits. Both seem to have an ambivalent attitude towards performing, but when they take the stage, it's pure electricity from start to finish.
But even beyond that, where both Dylan and Waits have staked their identities on mystery and half-truths, Yusuf Islam built last night's show on radical openness. Everything was laid bare, and as he retraced his own personal history, the audience was invited into his quest for self-knowledge.
The set concluded with an energetic, sing-along rendition of his biggest hit, "Wild World," but the show reached its narrative apex with "Maybe There's a World" from his 2006 comeback album, An Other Cup.
"Maybe there's a world that I'm still to find," he sang, before taking the song into a cover of the Beatles' "All You Need is Love." Far from an artist who had a spiritual conversion and checked out, Yusuf Islam is still restlessly seeking, and for a precious few hours in Toronto last night, he earnestly and warmly brought us into that search.