Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens, invites fans aboard the Peace Train at Kennedy Center

Formerly known as Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam (shown here performing in Rabat in May 2011) performed at Washington's Kennedy Center on Wednesday night.
Formerly known as Cat Stevens, Yusuf Islam (shown here performing in Rabat in May 2011) performed at Washington's Kennedy Center on Wednesday night. (AFP/Getty Images)

"I never wanted to be a star," Yusuf Islam sang Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center. "I never wanted to travel far."

The irony is that Islam's Washington performance, a more or less chronological review of his songbook, curated and annotated by the singer-songwriter, was all about his journey to international superstardom.


This storyteller format — the boomer musician leading an audience through his musical biography, songs intermingled with memories and commentary — is, by now, well worn.

But the journey of Islam, both musically and spiritually, is more interesting than most.


The show, themed "A Cat's Attic" and performed on a stage dressed to recall the early '60s bedsit over his parents' London café, traced his development from Steven Georgiou, the Beatles- and Bernstein-loving teenager who wrote British Invasion hits for others, to Cat Stevens, the singer-songwriter and seeker who from the late '60s into the mid-'70s produced a string of global smashes that remain staples of the boomer canon, to Yusuf Islam, the Muslim convert who stepped away from music for nearly three decades to focus on family and philanthropy.

Islam returned to music after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, singing an a capella version of his "Peace Train" to be broadcast before the Concert for New York City, and eventually recording new music and touring occasionally.

Thursday evening, he strode onto the stage, diffident and disarming in jeans, vest and full beard, strumming a big Elvis Presley acoustic guitar and singing "Where Do the Children Play?"

It was the right song with which to start a sweet two hours of autobiography.


"Welcome to my background," Islam invited, and then spoke of his teenage obsession with music. He produced a copy of the Beatles' first album and put the disc on a turntable — "if I can remember how to do this" — and played a snippet of "Twist and Shout."

"This is the one that exploded everything … I had to get a guitar."

He was also inspired by musicals. He played a recording of "America" from "West Side Story," and then led his three-piece band through a folky version of "Somewhere," also from the Bernstein work, and a country shuffle version of "Love Me Do."

Influences acknowledged, it was time for his earliest hits — first, for other artists: "Here Comes My Baby," made famous by the Tremeloes, and "The First Cut is the Deepest," a U.K. smash for the American soul singer P.P. Arnold, and later for Rod Stewart and Sheryl Crow.

Eric Appapouley, on electric, acoustic and nylon-string guitars, and Kwame Yeboah, mostly on bass but also keyboards and percussion, proved versatile accompanists, adept at the bright folk pop groove that drives Islam's sound, but also adding a rock edge to "Matthew & Son," and an almost gospelly soul to "People Get Ready."

Throughout, Islam was shyly, slyly droll — raising his eyebrows at the melodic similarity between "Matthew & Son" and Tears for Fears' later "Mad World," updating the 1967 "Here Comes My Baby" with the complaint "you're forever texting on the phone," claiming he wrote "I'm Gonna Get Me a Gun" after the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" kept "Matthew & Son" from the top of the charts ("Gun" is actually an anti-violence song).

More earnestly, he recounted his spiritual journey, from a dark period of drinking and carousing, represented by "A Bad Night" and "Trouble" (joking, he blamed touring with Jimi Hendrix), to a near-death experience (getting caught in a riptide off the beach in Malibu) and surrendering his life to God — the deliverance of "People Get Ready" and "Roadsinger."

He alluded to negative reactions to his conversion, by which he might have meant the controversy around comments that appeared to support the Ayatollah Khomeini's 1989 fatwa calling for the death of the writer Salman Rushdie. Islam has said his comments were misunderstood, and has consistently denounced terrorism and violence.

On Thursday, he did not mention the fatwa, or use the words "Allah," "Muslim" or "Islam." He said anyone who wanted to know the details of his 27 years away from music would have to read his autobiography.

His was not a conversion that required him to renounce his catalog. As Cat Stevens, he dealt largely in peace, love and hope — themes on which he now dwells as a Muslim and humanitarian. If anything, his life today deepens the meaning of his earlier material.

Finally, in a denouement both odd and affecting, he recounted the plot of the Disney movie "Zootopia," up to and including a complete reading of the speech delivered by Officer Judy Hopps, who is a rabbit.

"I vote for the rabbit!" he said.

Then he turned to the presidential election, about which he declared "I have decided to say — nothing!"

But then he did, in song: Playing the familiar opening notes to "Peace Train," and leading the packed hall in a rousing valedictory.


Where Do the Children Play?

Don't Be Shy


Love Me Do

Here Comes My Baby

The First Cut is the Deepest

I Love My Dog

Matthew & Son

Northern Wind

A Bad Night



I Wish, I Wish

Miles from Nowhere

On the Road to Find Out

Tea for the Tillerman

Sad Lisa

If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out

Into White

Father and Son


How Can I Tell You

The Boy With a Moon and Star on His Head

Oh Very Young

(I Never Wanted) to Be a Star

People Get Ready


Be What You Must

Maybe There's a World/All You Need Is Love

Peace Train

Wild World

Morning Has Broken

Recommended on Baltimore Sun