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June 20, 1971
Written by: Bud Scuppa


CAT STEVENS: It Must Be Destiny

Cat sitting on rail road tracksIt must be destiny.

Cat Stevens couldn't come along at a better time. Time (magazine) has informed us that we’re entering a period of gentle, reflective, and introspective music, so I guess it’s official now. Unfortunately, even the best of this new breed of quietly suffering culture heroes can become mighty oppressive unless some variety is inserted into the listener’s musical diet. James Taylor has never felt comfortable about cutting loose. And Elton John, who has been known to holler and dance on stage if not on record, has revealed himself to be a formula writer-performer (he’s like a quarterback who’s gonna keep running the same play until he stops gaining on it). Peers of those two are stuck in their own ruts.

With Cat Stevens, we have one writer who can write an introspective song without getting so, well, personal about it; we have one performer who’s equally at ease with sentiment and shouting. Tea for the Tillerman is a more satisfying listening experience than other commercially successful solo albums because Cat Stevens’ emotional and musical range isn’t nearly so rigidly defined as that of James Taylor, Elton John, Gordon Lightfoot, or David Crosby. Could any other of these performers have put across a song of the ilk of Stevens "Hard Headed Woman"? I can’t imagine it in Crosby’s hands, or Taylor’s, and yet the song in no way undercuts the image of a genteel Cat Stevens singing "Into White," or a frankly sentimental Stevens sighing through "Fill My Eyes." They’re all undeniably him, and they’re all irresistible.

Because he ranges so widely, Cat Stevens has appeal to all kinds of listeners. His lyrics are clever and always interestingly structured; people who like to follow along on their lyric sheets are endlessly intrigued by the twists and turns Cat’s words take. But others (myself included), with less inclination toward a scholastic approach to pleasure, can find delight in the flow and texture of his songs. Those graceful but fun-loving acoustic guitar parts aren’t the least of the wonders to be found in his music.

When it’s all strung together, a Cat Stevens song will magically appear to be an inventive assimilation of tradition elements to folk purists and a slick commercial product to AM programmers. His songs are so direct, informally elegant, and unassuming that they resemble the best examples of various genres of vocal music. Or maybe he is magic. It would seem so to people who’ve seen Cat Stevens life-size.

When he took the stage for the first time in the just-opened "expanded" Gaslight (formerly the Cafe au Go Go), a young female voice coming from the small mob seated on the floor before the stage was heard to swoon: "Oooh! I can’t believe it! It’s really him! Look, Joyce, there he is!" Others were more in control of themselves, but I’m sure many were thinking the same thing.

He’s dark and intense looking (Greek blood), but when he smiles, he literally radiates, and you forget that brooding first impression instantly. He is, in fact, much like his songs: straightforward and completely guileless. He has the beautifully open kind of face you’d wish for in a friend. Upon seeing Cat Stevens, it’s nearly impossible to maintain a cynical attitude, regardless of one’s attitude toward his music. (An editor friend of mine saw him last fall, and at the end of his sets, whispered, "I don’t really like all his songs, but he’s so charming.")

At the Gaslight, Cat wasn’t in his best voice, and the vocal mike was turned up a twist too high (turning his shouting crescendos into all but painful moments), but hardly anybody seemed to notice. After his first song, Cat mentioned that coming to New York after a week in Los Angeles was like "coming home" for him. When the audience responded with warm clapping, he smiled in embarrassment, then explained, "I didn’t say that to get you to applaud or anything." See what I mean? Guileless. See now what that editor felt? Charming.

Partner Alan Davies worked with typical tastefulness, intertwining his acoustic guitar lines with Stevens’ and adding delicate and perfectly placed bits of vocal harmony. An electric bass player whose name I don’t recall also appeared, but he had little to play through most of the tunes. Stevens and Davies get such a full sound with their two guitars that additional instrumentation is often superfluous—they’re a highly compact rock’n’roll band in disguise.

There was another addition to the instrumentation for this tour, this one more valuable. A piano was provided by the management, and Cat showed himself to be an enthusiastic and effective piano player—if not an expert one—on three songs during the middle of his set. His piano playing particularly enhanced "Where Do The Children Play."

After the stint at the piano, he went back to his guitar. Explaining that he’d had enough of sitting down, Cat pushed away the stool he’d used while playing guitar earlier, and finished the set standing up. We were expecting "Peace Train," a powerful and climactic—but as yet unrecorded—song that always gets his audiences on their feet, for his encore, but he didn’t take one. Lines of people outside were pressing to get in, and the club’s management evidently wanted to keep things moving along.

This was a far cry from the full, but not overfull house that had been charmed by Cat Stevens at the old Gaslight just four months before. We had him practically to ourselves then. No more.

But that’s okay. How can you argue with destiny?

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