The 1970s songs by Yusuf/Cat Stevens sound really, really good in 2016.
“It’s great to hear you live again,” shouted one fan on Monday at Davies Symphony Hall during the San Francisco stop of the musician’s “A Cat’s Attic” tour.
Perhaps most of the enthralled baby boomers in the capacity crowd were unlike the admirer. They probably had not before heard the guitar-playing, folk-rock great — who turned to Islam and famously took a break from pop music for nearly three decades — perform live versions of indelible songs from their formative years.
“Father and Son,” the emotional summation of trying familial relationships (and campfire sing-along staple) was the show-stopper, as powerful as it was in 1970 — maybe even more so, given how time changes perspectives.
In an engaging storytelling show filled with anecdotes about his musical journey, Yusuf said he wrote the song (off the chart-topping “Tea for the Tillerman”) for a musical about the Russian Revolution that never was realized.
Other musicals played a role in his life: “West Side Story” (he sang “Somewhere”) and another unfinished project about Billy the Kid, which yielded “Northern Wind.”
Impeccably backed by Eric Appapoulay on guitar and Kwame Yeboah on bass, percussion and keyboards, Yusuf, 68, was in excellent voice, sounding just like he did years ago on acoustic arrangements happily similar to the originals, for the most part.
The cozy set — a backdrop that looked like the modest London house where he grew up, with smoke rising from the chimney, under a sky with a full moon — complemented Yusuf’s enlightening, chronological narration.
At first he was influenced by blues and rock. Early tunes he wrote in the 1960s “Here Comes My Baby,” “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” “I Love My Dog” and “Matthew & Son” (he demonstrated how “Mad World” by Tears for Fears, and Gary Jules later, sounds remarkably like it) were different from the peace, love, and searching-for-identity themes of his ‘70s hits: “Moonshadow,” “Where Do the Children Play?,” “Peace Train,” “Wild World,” “Morning Has Broken,” “Sitting,” “Oh Very Young,” and “Miles from Nowhere,” which got an electric treatment.
He said he came to those songs having “a lot of questions” and discovering Buddhism.
But after becoming popular (“believe it or not, I never wanted to be a star,” he said), he became confused.
A near-death swimming incident off Malibu prompted his conversion to Islam, beginning the next stage of his journey.
“I won’t tell you about the next 27 years, you’ll have to wait for my book,” he said.
Having walked away feeling rejected, he returned when his son came home with a guitar, and he knew he had a job to do — “another one.”
His 21st century material, like “Roadsinger,” offers the same gentle, humanistic messages as his tunes that moved a generation.
Monday’s concert was a remarkable affair, unlike most in today’s cynical pop music world.
Yusuf even pulled off a quote by the cartoon rabbit in the movie “Zootopia” who implored: “We have to try and understand each other and make the world a better place.”
And he had the crowd in his hand with his irresistible “Harold and Maude” movie theme: “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out.”