First as Cat Stevens and now as Yusuf, the man who played the Tower Theater on Thursday night has always presented himself as a man of peace, fairness, and action. His folk melodies and tender, worldly visions were at the center of the '70s singer-songwriter era. His aura of holy universality made his career seem more like a calling than a hit-making machine. Still, he's great box office. And principled: He canceled a concert at Manhattan's Beacon Theater - part of his first North American tour in 35 years - because of rampant ticket-scalping, and redirected that show to the Tower as his first U.S. tour date.
Hearing Stevens' warm, soft voice was like reminiscing with a dear friend you hadn't heard from in years, but whose new stories (the gritty, electric "Editing Floor Blues") were as endearing as the old ones ("Oh Very Young").
With steady assurance, he eased into "The Wind" and its warning against temptation - "I swam upon the devil's lake/But never, never, never, never/I'll never make the same mistake" - giving each "never" its own subtle intonation. Stevens' gentle baritone was the loveliest highlight of "The First Cut Is the Deepest," a song of wronged romance made famous by Rod Stewart. "Now I've reclaimed that song," said Stevens, its author, with a smile, before launching into the chamber-poppy "Thinking 'Bout You" and the syncopated track "Sitting" ("Oh I'm on my way, I know I am").
Stevens imbued "Moonshadow" and "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" (from 1971's Harold and Maude) with both voice and handsome rhythmic thrust. His innate musicality was in full flower during "Where Do the Children Play?", a percolating cover of Jimmy Reed's "Big Boss Man," and a stirring take on Edgar Winter's "Dying to Live," with Stevens lowering his voice an octave for maximum soul. That communal soul vibe made his classic "Peace Train" ring out like an old gospel spiritual, which it has become to many of his fans.