Sunday
Dec212014

Yusuf/ Cat Stevens and The Sound of Surrender

Early in the Yusuf/ Cat Stevens concert in Boston a couple of weeks ago, while he waited for a stagehand to bring him a guitar between songs , someone near the front of the stage shouted something to the 66 year-old performer. “I’m really happy to be here!,” came the spontaneous, ernest reply. It did not sound like ersatz showbiz banter; it sounded humble, childlike even, as if he himself were surprised by the emotion. It sounded like surrender.

The crowd, in response, rose to its feet en masse, producing a sound that was more than just a cheer, more than just thunderous applause.  It was an embrace.  It was a moment -- an acknowledgement by artist and audience alike: Cat Stevens, someone who for all intents and purposes had ceased to exist over three decades ago, was back.

 

For a long time, it has been hard to love the man once known (and now known again) as Cat Stevens.  In the years since he formally retired from the popular music world in 1978, his name has popped up in the media from time to time. He would be quoted, or seen in a video clip interview, and it was difficult to accept the visage of the person he now presented himself as -- hard to reconcile this cold, humorless, unhappy and severe-looking man with the joyful, understanding, goofy/wise songwriter whose music we’d known and loved.  For a long time, the man now known as Yusuf Islam completely disowned his artistic output as Cat Stevens, a confusing, dispiriting slap in the face to those of us it once meant so much to.

 


The man he now was was running Islamic schools for children, spreading the word of Allah, being a spokesperson for Islam.   After a while, he began making some children’s albums, but he wasn’t playing the guitar, and the music was not for us. In interviews, he sounded defensive and removed. Some remarks attributed to him seemed to be in line with some of the more distasteful prejudices of modern-day conservative Islam.

Then, in 2006, came  An Other Cup, his first album of commercial music in 28 years. He’d dropped his adopted last name of Islam, and was now calling himself, simply, “Yusuf.” Something had shifted, certainly. How welcome it was to hear that voice with that guitar again, after all these years. Still, the album’s opening track “Midday (Avoid City After Dark)” set a tone of unease, paranoia and judgment that never really lifted. Elsewhere on the recording, there was a revisit a much earlier composition “I Think I See The Light,” and an interesting (if forced-sounding)  reworking of a section of his “Foreigner Suite”  ("Heaven/Where True Love Goes”), but the bulk of the album felt earthbound.  Nowhere was there the joie de vivre that inhabited his best work.  2009’s follow-up, Roadsinger, sounded fresher, but still unconvincing. Which was it -- was he wary of us, or we him? There seemed to be skepticism and distrust on both sides.

Some live performances began to pop up here and there online. He was steadfast about not playing any old Cat Stevens material save for a select few songs that he could justify in the context of his religious path -- songs like “The Wind” and “Peace Train.”  He had collaborated on a musical called “Moonshadow” that featured actors singing some of his old songs and was having a run in Australia. It proved a critical and financial flop.

I paid attention to all of this because, although I did not grow up listening to Cat Stevens per se, his music became the soundtrack to my adolescence when I watched Harold and Maude for the first time, and everything changed.  

I went out and got a guitar. I listened to Cat Stevens music obsessively, played and sang his songs with friends, hunted down all of his albums. While it was clear that he’d lost his way artistically on later albums like Numbers and Izitso, the earlier, classic albums that he’s still known for (Mona Bone Jakon through Foreigner) were full of treasures that could be mined again and again. Indelible melodies, beautiful production, emotionally committed performances and, most of all, a gentle wisdom, a repudiation of the status quo, a sense that we were not alone. Here was someone who was trying to make sense of life too; he may not have had the answers, but he was looking for them, and we were encouraged to join him. Here was a friend.


Of course, I quickly learned that Cat Stevens had already ceased to be. My adolescent soul despaired knowing that there would be no more Cat Stevens albums, no more Cat Stevens concerts. The man who had become a hero to me no longer existed.

In time, his music too would fade from my consciousness. As I grew and matured, so did my musical tastes and sensibilities. I might reach for a Cat Stevens album on rare occasions to remind myself of something that once meant so much to me, sometimes surprised that a song or album held up as strongly as it did, but his music was no longer a living thing for me.  I did pay attention when he came out of retirement with the two Yusuf albums, and listened to each of them a handful of times with attendant hopes and (it seemed) inevitable disappointment.  It was hard to get excited about his music now. The voice was the same, but the spirit was changed, different, unwelcoming.

Nevertheless, when it was announced that he was going to perform in America for the first time in 38 years, I put my misgivings aside and became a teenager again, queueing up for tickets on the phone the morning that they went on sale.  I did not listen to the new album Tell ‘Em I’m Gone, nor did I look for any news about the kinds of shows he’d been playing of late.  I simply drove up to Boston to see my old hero, expectations dimmed to almost nothing.  I imagined I would see Yusuf Islam, delivering a respectful program of his latter-day music, with perhaps one or two old favorites thrown in as crowd appeasement.  I wasn’t going for Yusuf Islam. I was going to pay homage to the singer that had once meant so much to me, for the chance to simply be in the same room with him for the first and what I figured would be the last time.


* * *
 
I’m still trying to come to grips with what it was like to be at that concert in Boston.  What happened there was more than just a good concert given by a group of well-rehearsed, talented musicians backing a pop icon on a comeback tour, though it was partly that.  It was more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane, as a sold-out crowd sang along to songs that many (including myself) never expected to hear played live again, though it was that too.  Without resorting to hyperbole, being there, for me, was an unexpected catharsis, something like seeing a ghost.

I didn’t know, until I got there, that he was now billing himself with the ungainly but revealing name of Yusuf/ Cat Stevens. Was he now acknowledging his former self? This was a surprise, the first of many that the evening would hold.

The once and future Cat Stevens walked on to a tremendous ovation (no surprise there) and launched into a solo performance of “The Wind.” Okay, in some way, that was what we’d come for and here he’d already given it to us.  All the latter-day Yusuf stuff would follow, we’d give him some hearty applause at the encore, and that would be that -- or so I thought.

What was this though?  He was wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket -- not the austere, devotional garb he’d worn in the (admittedly not so recent) appearances I’d seen him do online. And the stage set -- it was elaborate, whimsical, evocative of the old Cat whose tastes sometimes crossed the line into outright silliness. Most significantly, though, he himself seemed engaged, connected, and -- hardest to believe -- lighthearted.

“Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut Is The Deepest” followed, two very early pop hits, secular love songs. Woah, he’s doing that material?  What’s going on here?  

“Thinking ‘Bout You” followed, a more recent song of love and devotion, but it was buoyed by an energy and commitment that sustained the freshness of what had come before, and served as a bridge to the first real shock of the night, as the singer made his way to a piano at the side of the stage and, unaccompanied, launched into the opening strains of “Sitting,” as the crowd seemed to collectively gasp before erupting into joyous, grateful cheers.

Here he was again. Cat Stevens. Questioning, seeking, proudly admitting that he did not have the answers but that he was on his way to find them.  Our companion, our friend, had returned.

It was the first of what would be many goosebump moments in the generous, two part concert. He followed it with “Last love Song” from 1978’s obscure (and mostly pretty bad) Back to Earth, the mere fact that he was exploring and reclaiming obscurities from his back catalog speaking volumes.

By the time he’d reached the end of the first set, closing it with "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out", the message was clear -- something had happened. He was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them.  After insisting for so many years, as Yusuf Islam,  that there was only one way, only one truth, one law, one path, he’d relented. He was giving us permission, again, to do and think and live how we wanted. And he seemed genuinely happy saying and singing it. I’m not above admitting that I wiped tears from my eyes. As I looked around, I saw that I was not alone.
 

 The second set held even more surprises, as song after song from the old oeuvre was brought back to life. “Oh Very Young,” “Sad Lisa,” “Miles From Nowhere” (I have my freedom/ I can make my own rules/ Oh yeah, the ones that I choose”).  They were presented, for the most part, as set pieces, with hardly any improvisation at all, but it didn’t matter. Old faithful Alun Davies was there on lead acoustic guitar, as he has been since 1970. Matt Sweeney was a welcome addition on electric guitar, adding a pinch of verve and danger to the mix, but if old concert footage is any indication, Cat Stevens was never one for taking too many risks onstage musically, choosing instead to eschew spontaneity in deference to the arrangements on his studio recordings.  

It was inspiring to hear him still tinkering with that beautiful failure “Foreigner Suite,” still trying to get it right. Old classics like “Where Do The Children Play?” and “Trouble”  brought with them a great sadness; confronted with the simplicity, the naivete even, of the sentiments in these gentle lyrics, it was impossible not to think of how the world has changed and darkened since these songs were written and last performed. Even “Moonshadow,” that lullaby of Buddhist acceptance, carried with it the sting of longing for less dire times.  

 * * *
 
Being at this concert, hearing these songs again, sung with conviction by this man, was like being allowed to spend a night in one’s childhood home, with everything back the way that it was from some pre-existential, innocent moment -- with even one’s family members frozen in time the way that they were decades ago. For me, it was eerie, spooky, unsettling, like Emily’s trip back from the dead in Our Town.

At the end of each of these old songs, there was that same sustained applause that followed his aside, early in the show, about how happy he was to be here.  It’s a sound I keep coming back to when I think about the experience of being at this concert, a sound unlike any I think I have ever heard.  It had mass. It was an entity, a palpable force, as though the emotion behind every voice and every pair of hands could be heard. There was a sort of desperate celebration to it. It was the sound of reconciliation, of gratitude, of redemption.

Yusuf/ Cat Stevens may never tour again (though I hope that’s not true), may never sing these songs again (also probably not true -- I've since learned that he's been doing them for some time now), but on this tour and on this night, he made something truly magical happen: he brought back someone we loved from the dead, a phantom from another time, and with that act offered tacit acknowledgement that we’re so much better together than we are apart.   It would seem wrong to call the concert a triumph, because the man that Yusuf/ Cat Stevens has become is clearly too humble to aspire to that.  Instead, it felt  something like a miracle.

 

 






Sunday
Nov022014

Crawling Inside A Song And Shutting The Door

 


 

On the eve of the release of one of the most bootlegged of bootleg recordings ever made (Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes)  I happened across another, much less-well known, perhaps totally obscure Bob Dylan bootleg recording -- an outtake from the soundtrack to an execrable film called Hearts of Fire, a star vehicle gone wrong for a burned-out, lost in the weeds mid-80's era Dylan, who later admitted that he was drunk most of shoot.

The film soundtrack featured exactly two new, and entirely throwaway, Bob Dylan songs -- “Night After Night” and  “Had A Dream About You Baby,  But the song, or rather, the performance that I’ve been listening to, is not a Dylan song at all, but a cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five And Dimer.” It’s a skull-rattling gem. 

According to a website called alldylan.com, Dylan went into a London studio over two days in August, 1986 to record music for the soundtrack. His band for the sessions included the likes of Eric Clapton and Ron Wood. On the first day, Dylan put the band to work on five takes of John Hiatt’s “The Usual,” one take of something called “Ride This Train,” which sounds like a mess of a half-formed original song that he quickly abandoned, before launching into five takes of “Had A Dream About You Baby.”

Then comes the solo take of "Old Five and Dimers" and, for three minutes and twelve seconds, Dylan delivers a performance that digs down and scrapes every bit of nuance to be had in a song that isn’t even his.  It’s an astonishing bit of theater, and better by far than any acting he did onscreen for “Hearts of Fire.”

The “old five and dimer” who narrates the song is, on the surface, about the furthest thing in the wolrd from rock icon Bob Dylan.  He’s a nobody, a guy that’s knocked around through mostly hard times, a Cadillac buyer who knows that “good times and fast bucks are too far and too few between.”  Yet, even during Dylan’s mid-80’s nadir, when he seemed to be artistically and spritually bankrupt, he was still Bob Dylan -- a household name, a man who’d sold millions of records and put an indelible stamp on American popular music and culture. He was still someone who performed in sports arenas, who’d engendered a following of rabid acolytes who followed and examined his every move.

Yet, listening to this recoding, you would never know any of that. In fact, the singer in this recording sounds like the oldest, most five-and-dimerist, broken down singer you’d ever want to hear sing this song. The performance sounds authentic. It sounds real. At the end, he cries “An Old-Five and Dimer is all I intended to be!” the phrase positively drowning in weary, stubborn, hardcrabble, painful pride. 

 Really Bob?  All you ever wanted was to be an anonymous, unknown, everyman kind of guy? That’s what you wanted, when you hitched a ride to New York City to seek fame and fortune and your place in the history books?  To hear this recording, it’s almost believable.

So where in the world does Dylan get the nerve to imbue this song with the sort of raw conviction that he does?  How does he do it?   He gets inside the song. He plays the part. It’s theater.  

  Of course there is a lie behind the performance. One could even say that Dylan's not being authentic here.  But he is.  He’s using an example of something he knows little about (being a unknown failure) to express something about the way he feels right now that is beyond the scope of the language of his experience.  It’s the same as when we feel so good that we say we feel like a million bucks. Or we feel like a King. Or we feel like we’re on top of the world -- even when we don’t really know what those things are actually like. We have a feeling that transcends our ability to capture it in words. so we reach for a metaphor to express it. 

Isn’t that what all great, well-told stories do?  They get at something that we feel but don’t know what to do with, because the feeling is so real.  A good artist is brave enough, or lucky enough, to be able to do that with some regularity. A great artist, like Bob Dylan, can do it across a career that spans decades. It’s why we revere them so much, follow them, wait to see what they’re going to share with us next, because we never know when the muse will visit and allow him to imbue some song -- his or someone else’s -- with that kind of feeling that raises the hair on the back of our necks.These kinds of performances bring us closer to our own unplumbed, complicated feelings. They make us feel less alone.

And then, we can’t get the song, or the performance out of our heads. We want to share it. We want to tell everyone we know about it.  So, check it out, and see what you think.  And while you’re at it, listen to the one other keeper from these sessions, “To Fall In Love”, an unfinished original that sounds like it could have been part of those Basement Tapes that we're all listening to this week.

 

Thursday
Oct162014

Beware Facebook

 

Like a lot of us who use Facebook, I have a personal page and a page for my business, where I can connect with people who are interested in what I do professionally.  On the professional page (in my case, a "fan" page) I make announcements about upcoming concerts, recordings, new projects, post photos and music, interact with fans, etc. 

For a month now, I have been unable to access my professional page, and Facebook has not respoded to any of the dozens of help tickets that I have created about this issue.  There seems to be no one there at Facebook.  This is the second time this year that this has happened -- the first time, about a week went by and then, without explanation, my admin account was available again, appearing just as mysteriously as it had vanished. 

This time, the situation is more serious, as I have a tour coming up and presenters who would like to interface with me and my fans via Facebook.  Not having access to my page is having a real impact on my business. As you can see from the screenshot above, Facebook knows that I run this page -- they just won't allow me access to it.

I have posted about this on my personal page, and had people respond with similar horror stories, some saying that they had lost access to their pages permanently, and with it, years and years of original content created for, or posted to, their page.

This is intolerable.  Facebook is not a small company. Facebook should have tech support and be able to fix this kind of thing.

Maybe if enough of us make noise about this issue, they will pay attention.  Would you please consider reposting this on your social media?

Thanks for your help!

#FacebookFail

 

UPDATE 10/24/14: The page has been restored. No explanation, no feedback from tech support, just a mysterious resolution (for now?). Be on guard, FB users!

 

Sunday
Sep282014

Mr. Roland Barber

 

Photo by R. Barber/ J.Wiggan

 

Roland Barber is not only one of the most accomplished musicians I know of on his chosen instrument(s), but he's also one of the more exceptional human beings that I've had the honor to work with over the years -- a gentleman and a scholar, a listener, a thoughtful, soulful, deeply spiritual individual.

Like a good number of musicians I have met in NYC and come to work with in my band, I was led to Roland by that great connector Kevin Louis, who suggested I give Roland a try on a little New England tour we had coming up.  When it comes to matching me up with musicians who fit well with my music, Kevin has never once suggested anyone who's been less than stellar, and Roland was that -- stellar, from the very first gig we did together at the now-defunct Church House Concert Series in Haddam, CT. 

Although we were performing as a full-on brass band, with trumpet (Mr. Louis himself), trombone, tuba and drums, on the bandstand that night I quickly sensed something about Roland's playing -- a subtlety and a sensitivity -- that I was eager to shine a ight on.  Putting him on the spot a bit, I told our audience that Roland and I were going to play a duet or two on a couple of old standards, and spontaneously launched into renditions of two chestnuts that I've been performing for about as long as I've been performing -- When I Grow Too Old To Dream, and I'm Confessin' in an attempt to feature Roland's skills. My gamble was rewarded, and if you follow those two links, they'll take you to recordings I've just posted of that very performances, the beginning of what would be a long musical partnership with Roland -- a special moment caught for posterity.

 

Photo by Kathleen Scully

Since that time, Roland has played hundreds of concerts with me. He can blow the roof off the joint anytime he wants, and then play so quietly that you can literally hear the audience holding its collective breath. Sometimes he will pull out his trusty conch shell, and take a solo on that, as he did in this performance at Joe's Pub in NYC with me a few years ago in a concert that also featured Skye Steele on violin, Jon Flaugher on bass and Mark McLean on drums:

I was also thrilled to play a small role in the emergence of Roland Barber the vocalist, his voice yet another powerful asset in what seems to be his virtually limitless range of talents. On brass band gigs, I was sometimes able to coax him out of his modesty and shyness into singing an old traditional like "Comin' Round The Mountain," but it wasn't until he honored me with a version of my song "Want You To Be Mine" (at yet another outing at Joe's Pub in NYC) that I feel like Roland the singer really blossomed. This clip also features Mazz Swift on violin, Marika Hughes on cello, Mark McLean on drums, and Nathan Peck on bass. Have a look:

 

In addition to performing on my albums Better Get Right and No Further Instructions, Roland played an invaluable role behind the scenes in the mixing of those two records, offering penetrating and thoughtful insight as a particpant in that process, weighing in on what was working and what wasn't until we arrived at  results that I'd like to think we're both pretty proud of. Roland's attention to detail, and his keen understanding of the things that make music work are deep, and spring from a finely-developed ear for hearing truth in music rather than just a series of notes.

Roland is also a natural born teacher. Time and again, he's provided me (and, doubtless, countless others) with guidance, insight and wisdom that belie his years.  He's caused me to question fundamental elemets of what I do and why I do it, and -- like any great mentor -- has inspired me to do better, to always try to reach beyond my limitations.

* * *

Although Roland has since relocated his native Tennessee, he still tours with me when he's available to do so (here's a video of him performing with me in Estonia last summer), and I was lucky enough to be able to see and perform with him in his hometown of Nashville a few weeks ago when we were invited to do a showcase set at this year's Americana Music Association Festival. While the audience turnout for our show was pretty dismal (see page 2 of Craig Havighurst's roundup review here), the trip for me was salvaged by the opportunity to spend some quality time hanging out with Roland, and to meet his wonderful family. 

After our performance, Roland's Dad came up and offered his hand to me, telling me how much he admired my music and how he felt that Roland's rendition of "Want You To Be Mine" was faithful to the original even as he thought Roland put his own stamp on it (I agreed).  He couldn't have been kinder.  Roland's Mother was similarly effusive, and wouldn't let me leave the venue without giving me a big hug. "My Mother would never forgive me," she said, "if I didn't give you a proper Nashville greeting." 

I got to meet and spend time with Roland's girlfriend Micah, and the three of us spent the better part of an afternoon at their favorite gelato spot unpacking what this term "Americana Music" might be all about, how my music might fit into it, and the Nashville music scene in general -- a revealing conversation for me, as this was really my first exposure to this town.

The highlight may have been the brief visit we made to Roland's grandmother, Mrs. Zephyr Selby, who'd just celebrated her 91st birthday. Although she hadn't physically been feeling well of late, her mind, heart and spirit were as open and present as a young girl's.  I got the same sense from her that I did from Roalnd's parents, and it was plain to see where Roland gets the qualities that make him such a special person: presence, humility, generosity, warmth, spirituality, humor, and grace.

It is my pleasure and my honor to have Mr. Roland Barber as a collabortaor, a teacher, and a friend. You can check out some of his own music right here.

Photo by Ed Bobrow

Wednesday
May282014

Skye Steele

Photo by Jim McLaughlin

Skye Steele is a marvel of a musician and one of my favorite human beings.

Skye first started performing with me in 2003, when the second iteration of my quartet disbanded and I was basically holding a series of live auditions for new band members at low-key gigs around town.  I remember Skye's first show with me, during a short-lived residency at The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side in NYC.  I think i probably handed him a copy of what was then my most current release -- DO WHAT I WANT -- a day or two before the gig. Or maybe even that same morning.  He came to the gig having done his homework, knowing all the violin lines and arranagments and bringing his own, unique stylings and energy to each of them. 

I was also introduced that day to one of my favorite things about Skye -- his candor.  I don't remember the exact words he used, but he said something to me along these lines: "You know, I have to tell you that I get asked to learn a lot of music and I play with a lot of bands, and most of the time I listen to the CD or demo or whatever and I think 'this is total garbage.'  So, I was really surprised when I listenied to your album and thought 'wow, I actually like this.'"

Among the scores of musicians I've had the pleasure of working with over the years, Skye may have one of the most unique musical voices that I know.  In his improvisations, he attacks (or caresses) a song sideways, often in unexpected and destabilizing ways.  And yet, his motivation is never to draw attention to himself, to detract from the integrity of the tune. Rather, he works with the band to turn things inside out, often opening the song up to new possibilities, or exposing previously unknown qualities or elements inherent within it.

Listen to the studio recording of "Maramures" from NO FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS.  The song begins plaintively, gently lilting, seeking to evoke the pastoral beauty of the Northern province of Romania.  Then, at just under a minute and a half into the tune, just as the track is dangerously close to crossing over into easy-listening land, Skye's violin comes in, twisting the landscape in exactly the right way, giving the song teeth, cutting right into its heart in a way that's beautiful and breathtaking.  It's almost as though the camera, which had been doing a sweeping overview shot of the landscape, suddenly pans way in to a close up of the smallest detail -- a fly buzzing around a cow's face; a child jumping for joy in a river strewn with garbage; a farmer's face at the end of a long day in the fields. 

Skye's playing gives us all of this, no small feat.  Few musicians care enough about the music they're playing to engage in this way.  I don't know many players more creative than Skye Steele. 

In addition to his many skills as a performer, Skye is an exceptional human, bringing care and consciousness to how he leads his life.  He's a vegetarian.  He's a politcal activist.  He's passionate about being environmentally conscious, and about helping others.  It's an honor not only to have him as an associate and a collabortaor, but also as a friend.

Skye does a lot more than just make music with me and other bandleaders.  He's a composer and songwriter in his own right, and is getting ready to release a new album.  Read more about it, and him, right here.