By BRUCE DENNILL
Yusuf Cat Stevens / TicketPro Dome, Randburg, Johannesburg / 8 November 2017
Cat Stevens has had one of music’s more storied careers, having begun his career over half a century ago, writing songs that have been enjoyed and covered around the world and having taken a spiritual journey that has both informed his writing and nearly destroyed his legacy (making comments about fatwas and being linked to terrorist organisations will – however valid the insinuations, have that effect).
“Story” remains perhaps the most pertinent keyword when it comes to describing Stevens’ 50th Anniversary Tour. This is first evident in the backdrop to the first half of the set – an unmistakeably London skyline in the background, with a train station in the foreground: something like Peter Pan meets The Railway Children.
At that point, there is no drumkit, not least because there’s not a lot of space, so there’s a suspicion that Stevens will stay true to his folk roots, a hunch that’s proved correct when he slopes on unannounced and sits at the piano for a solo opening. He’s soon joined by Eric Appapoulay, who plays a variety of guitars and a mandolin, and his musical director Kwame Yeboah, one of two multi-instrumentalists (bass, drums, organ, percussion, guitar, whatever else is lying around and then, halfway through the first set, relative newcomer to his set-up Glen Scott, who has a similar range of abilities to Yeboah’s.
Yeboah and Scott switch instruments with casual ease and are an energetic counterpoint to Stevens’ more static approach. To be fair, the singer-songwriter is 69 years old…
The setlist is generous in a couple of ways – peppered with the standards for which Stevens will always be known (Matthew And Son, The First Cut Is the Deepest, Father And Son, Wild World, Peace Train, Moonshadow and Morning Has Broken among them) and long and varied. Many of the songs, whether released in the Sixties and Seventies or written then and only coming to light now on Stevens’ new album The Laughing Apple, have the concise punchiness of that era’s most enduring hits – begun and ended in less than three minutes; sometimes in less than two. This ensures considerable diversity over the course of the concert, and opportunites for different sonic approaches, though generally the template relies on Stevens, his gorgeous Gibson J200 guitar and his inimitable singing voice, still overflowing with tone but less able around the highest notes.
Often, Stevens shares (in a quintessentially awkward English way) with the audience a brief snippet of his fascinating life story, referencing the visuals behind him or the title or lyrics of a song before saying something to the effect of, “I think this song captures that really well.” This underlines the power – indeed the function of folk music, which is to put across a message, hopefully in a memorable way.
There is further elaboration of the narrative after Stevens and his cohorts return after the interval – yes! – when the skyline backdrop disappears to reveal an illustration of an attic filled with, among other things, more instruments, including a set of drums that allows for fuller arrangements for the songs in the second act. It’s all a very clever way of bolstering the impact of a single singer with an acoustic guitar – one of the simplest and most effective formulae in music.
Appapoulay, Yeboah and Scott are a tight, exciting unit, smoothly papering over the occasional crack in the boss’ veneer when he forgets a word or puts an extra strum into a bar. His musical legacy is secure, and this cleverly staged concert does justice to the material.