My Playlist: Yusuf/Cat Stevens

Here’s an artist I pretty much had forgotten about, even though I dig many of his songs – until yesterday, when I spotted Tea For The Tillerman as a listening suggestion in my streaming music service. It immediately took me back to my teenage days in Germany when I was taking guitar lessons and learning Cat Stevens tunes like Lady D’Arbanville and Father And Son. And before I knew it, I was strumming my acoustic to see whether I could still remember the chords of the latter – I did, and while I rarely grab my guitar these days and my playing has become rusty, it still felt great!

Once I had Father And Son on my mind, other tunes popped up: Morning Has Broken, Peace Train, Miles From Nowhere, Moonshadow – so much great music written by this British artist who I feel has rightly been called one of the great singer-writers during his heyday in the ’70s, along with James Taylor, Carole King and others. At the same time, I can’t think of another popular music artist who has had such an unusual and at times tumultuous journey as Yusuf/Cat Stevens, as he is known today.

Born Steven Georgiou on July 21, 1948 in London, U.K. to Stavros Georgiou, a Greek Cypriot, and Ingrid Wickman from Sweden, Stevens started his recording career as an 18-year-old in 1966. He pretty much had immediate success in the U.K. His first single I Love My Dog charted at no. 28. The song was also included on Stevens’ debut album Matthew And Son, which appeared in March 1967. Not only did the title track climb to no. 2 on the UK Singles Chart, but the record became a top 10 album, peaking at no. 7.

In 1969, Stevens almost died from tuberculosis. Not only did this traumatic experience impact his future music, but it also started a spiritual journey that eventually would lead him to convert to the Muslim faith in December 1977 and give up his music career. But before that he had reached international stardom with a series of albums in the early ’70s, including the above mentioned Tea For The Tillerman.

Cat Stevens In Concert 1970s
Cat Stevens in concert during the 1970s

In 1989, Stevens, who by then was known as Yusuf Islam, returned to the spotlight, but it wasn’t the kind of attention he had looked for. Comments he had made were widely seen as endorsing a death fatwa against author Salman Rushdie related to his novel The Satanic Verses. The reaction was harsh, especially in the U.S. Some radio stations banned his music, and a radio host in LA even called for a mass burning of Stevens’ records. The band 10,000 Maniacs, which had covered Peace Train on their 1987 album In My Tribe, decided to remove the track from later releases.

While Stevens repeatedly maintained his remarks had been misunderstood, he also said his comments were foolish. I don’t have enough insights to come to a definitive conclusion here and it’s also not my place to judge. But I think if this controversy had occurred today in the age of social media, Yusuf would have been finished as a music artist.

Yusuf-Cat Stevens in Concert
Cat Stevens performing in New Zealand in 2017

Starting from the mid-1990s, Yusuf Islam resumed his recording activity with a series of albums focused on Islamic themes. In November 2006, he released An Other Cup, his first all-new pop album in 27 years. Three additional such records have since come out. His most recent album from September 2017 is called The Laughing Apple. Let’s get to some music.

I’d like to start with the above mentioned Matthew & Son, the title track of Stevens’ debut album from March 1967. Like all other songs on the record except for one, the catchy tune was written by Stevens. BTW, it features John Paul Jones on bass. The then-session musician joined the New Yardbirds the following year, the band that subsequently changed their name to Led Zeppelin.

Stevens’ sophomore release New Masters didn’t get much attention, but it includes a tune I’ve always liked: The First Cut Is The Deepest. Rod Stewart turned the song into a no. 1 single in the U.K. in 1977. Another well-known version is the cover by Sheryl Crow, who included it on her 2003 best of compilation, scoring a no. 14 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

In April 1970, Stevens released his third studio album Mona Bone Jakon. His near-death experience with TB had changed him. The tone of his lyrics had become darker. Another contrast to his first two albums was a more stripped back sound, which I love. Initially, the record was a modest success but received more attention after the release of the follow-on Tea For The Tillerman. Here’s the opener Lady D’Arbanville, one of several songs Stevens wrote about former girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville, a model and later an actress. I’ve always dug the cool guitar part on this tune.

Another great track from Mona Bone Jakon is Katmandu featuring then 20-year-old Peter Gabriel on flute. It’s just a beautiful tune!

Next up: Wild World from Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ fourth studio album released in November 1970, and his commercial breakthrough. It’s another tune about his ex-girlfriend Patti D’Arbanville.

Also appearing on the album is Father And Son, one of my favorite Cat Stevens songs.

In October 1971, Stevens released his fifth studio album Teaser And The Firecat, another gem in his catalog. Among the tracks I find particularly beautiful is Morning Has Broken. According to Wikipedia, this tune is a Christian hymn that was first published in 1931, with lyrics by English author Eleanor Farjeon. The piano arrangement on Stevens’ version was composed and performed by classically trained keyboarder Rick Wakeman, who is best known for his five tenures with Yes between 1971 and 2004.

Another standout on the record is Moonshadow. According to Songfacts, Yusuf today considers it his favorite of his old songs.

Up to this point, this playlist only focused on Stevens’ early years, since that’s the period I’m familiar with. But I also like to give a nod to his more recent work. I still have to explore this music in greater detail. Here’s a tune called Everytime I Dream, which appears on Roadsinger from May 2009, Yusuf’s second album since his return to pop music.

The last song I’d like to feature is See What Love Did To Me. It’s a tune from The Laughing Apple, released in September 2017 as Yusuf/Cat Stevens. This album, which mostly includes reinterpretations of old tunes and some new music, represents various milestones. It was the first since 1978 that used the Cat Stevens name. The release came 50 years after his debut record. It also reunited him with Paul Samwell-Smith, who produced his most successful records in the ’70s, and Alun Davies, his guitarist during that period.

In addition to numerous music accolades, Stevens has received various awards for his charitable humanitarian work. In 2014, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2016, he conducted a 50th anniversary tour that kicked off in Toronto on September 12 and included 11 dates in the U.S. It appears that after a long and tumultuous journey, Yusuf/Cat Stevens is finally in a place where he is comfortable with his spiritual beliefs and his music.

Sources: Wikipedia, Yusuf/Cat Stevens website, Songfacts, YouTube

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Sheryl Crow Releases Engaging Live Album

Live at the Capitol Theatre presents career-spanning set from 2017 tour

Many folks, who like me dig the late ’60s and focused their attention on the major reissues of the White Album and Electric Ladyland, may have missed this new album that also appeared on Friday: Sheryl Crow Live At The Capitol Theatre. It popped up this morning under new music in my streaming service, and it’s just great fun to listen to. Now I feel like adding Crow to my list of artists I’d like to see!

Crow entered my radar screen with her debut album Tuesday Night Music Club, which was released in August 1993. You couldn’t switch on the radio in those days without encountering the catchy All I Wanna Do. There are other great tunes on that record as well, such as the lead single Run Baby Run. But for some reason, that song didn’t even chart in the U.S., unlike All I Wanna Do, which became Crow’s biggest hit here, peaking at no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Overall, this was a hugely successful debut for Crow, ending up at no. 3 on the Billboard 200 and with a RIAA 7X Multi-Platinum Certification, as of February 1997.

Sheryl Crow and Band at Capitol Theatre

While I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a huge Sheryl Crow fan, I’ve consistently listened to her over the past 20-plus yeas. To me she’s a genuine artist who not only writes much of her own music and has a great ear for catchy pop rock songs but who also is a real musician. And let’s face it, the music industry is pretty male-dominated, so as a lady, she has to work twice as hard to get the recognition she deserves. With that said, let’s get to some music.

I’d like to kick things off with My Favorite Mistake, the opener to Crow’s third studio album The Globe Sessions, which came out in September 1998. She co-wrote the tune with her longtime collaborator Jeff Trott.

Next up: Be Myself, the title track from Crow’s last studio album released in April 2017, which is also the record that her 2017 tour supported. Like all other songs on that album, it was co-written by Crow and Trott, who also served as co-producer.

Here’s the above mentioned Run Baby Run. The tune from Crow’s debut album is credited to her; producer Bill Bottrell, who also played guitar and pedal steel on the record; and guitarist David Baerwald.

If I could only select one Sheryl Crow song, it would be If It Makes You Happy. I just love that tune, which became the lead single to her eponymous second studio album from September 1996. It’s another Crow-Trott co-write.

The last track I’d like to call out is a nice cover of a song by one of my all-time favorite bands: Midnight Rider by The Allman Brothers Band. The classic, which appeared on the Brothers’ second studio album Idlewild South from September 1970, was primarily penned by Gregg Allman. According to Wikipedia, a roadie, Robert Kim Payne, helped Allman to finish the song’s lyrics and received a co-credit.

The album appears on Cleopatra Records and is available in DVD, Blu-ray, audio CD packages. The concert, which was the final gig of Crow’s 2017 tour, was filmed in its entirety at the historic Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., a place that has seen many great music acts. Here’s a nice teaser clip that addresses this aspect of the show.

“Very rarely, you walk into a venue and deeply feel the musical history of the place,” said Crow in an announcement issued by Rock Fuel Media, which managed the filming of the show. “The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York is one of those places, with so many legendary shows by artists like The Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, The Allman Brothers…..their imprint resonates. The vibe really elevated our performance – my band goes out and kills every night, but this set was on another level entirely. I’m so glad we were able to capture this show on film, it was one of those really special nights.”

Sources: Wikipedia, Sheryl Crow website, YouTube

My Take On 2017 In Rock Music: Part II

New music that moved me

Of the more than 20 albums I reviewed over the year, TajMo (Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’), Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter) and Southern Blood (Gregg Allman) touched me the most. There were new releases from younger artists in the blues rock arena I find exciting. If there is any truth to the often heard sentiment that (classic) rock music is dying, this certainly doesn’t seem to the case for blues and blues rock!

Taj Mahal & Keb’ Mo’/TajMo (May 5)

Overall, TajMo represents uplifting blues, which sounds like an oxymoron. “Some people think that the blues is about being down all the time, but that’s not what it is,” explained Mahal who has been known to mix blues with other music genres. From the very first moment I listened to it, this record drew me in, and I simply couldn’t get enough of it! You can read more about it here.

Here’s the fantastic opener Don’t Leave Me Here.

John Mellencamp featuring Carlene Carter/Sad Clowns & Hillbillies (April 28)

John Mellencamp is one of my long-time favorite artists. I know pretty much all of his albums. While I dig the straight rock-oriented music on his ’80s records like American Fool, Uh-Huh and Scarecrow, I’ve also come to appreciate his gradual embrace of stripped down roots-oriented music. That transition started with my favorite Mellencamp album The Lonesome Jubilee in 1987. Sad Clowns & Hillbillies probably is as rootsy as it gets for the Indiana rocker. For more on this outstanding record, you can read here.

Following is one of the album’s gems, Indigo Sunset, which Mellencamp performs together with Carlene Carter, who co-wrote the tune with him.

Gregg Allman/Southern Blood (Sep 8)

Southern Blood, the eighth and final studio album by the great Gregg Allman, is the 2017 release that touched me the most emotionally. Reminiscent of his 1973 debut solo release Laid Back, this album feels like Allman came full circle. Given how ill he was at the time he recorded the ten tracks, it is remarkable that the record doesn’t project an overly dark mood like David Bowie did on Blackstar. Instead, it portrays a man who appeared to have accepted his time was running short and who took a reflective look back on his life. I also find it striking how strong Allman’s voice sounds throughout.

Here is the official video of My Only True Friend, the only original song Allman co-wrote with Scott Sharrad, the lead guitarist and musical director of Allman’s band. Damn, watching is getting to me!

New music from young blues rock artists

There are some kick-ass younger blues rock artists who released new music this year. The first coming to my mind are Jane Lee Hooker and their sophomore album Spiritus, which appeared last month. This five-piece all-female band from New York delivers electrifying raw blues rock power. While you can read more the record here, how better to illustrate my point than with a clip: Gimme That, an original tune with a cool Stonesey sound.

Another hot young blues rock band is Greta Van Fleet, who also came out with their sophomore album in November. It’s called From The Fires. These Michigan rockers almost sound like a reincarnation of early Led Zeppelin. I previously reviewed the album here. Check out this clip of Safari Song. At first sight, these guys might look like some high school band, but they sure as heck don’t sound like one!

Next up are two blues rock dudes who are more established than Jane Lee Hooker and Greta Van Fleet but who are still fairly young artists at least in my book: 35-year-old Casey James and 40-year-old Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Plus, ultimately it’s about their music, not their age.

Casey James from Fort Worth, Texas, who was a third-place finalist on American Idol in 2010, started out playing pop-oriented country rock music. While his eponymous debut album from March 2013 brought some success, it didn’t bring him the happiness he was looking for as an artist. So he decided to leave the country world behind for electric blues and in June this year released Strip It Down. Here’s a clip of the nice opener All I Need.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd is hardly a newcomer. The guitarist from Shreveport, La. has been active as a musician since 1990. In August this year, he released Lay It On Down, his eighth album. In my opinion, Shepherd is one of the most exciting younger artists out there, who are keeping the blues alive. Here is the official clip of the record’s great opener, Baby Got Gone – my kind of music!

Anniversary editions of standout albums

As a die-hard fan of The Beatles, to readers of the blog it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that I was particularly excited about the 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which appeared in May – in fact, so much that I decided to get the double LP-set, my first new vinyl in 30 years! Producer Giles Martin, the son of the “fifth Beatle” George Martin, and music engineer Sam Okell created what The Beatles may well have wanted the iconic album to sound like, had they cared about the stereo mix in 1967. Here is more about this amazing reissue. Following is the official anniversary trailer.

Another great anniversary reissue, which was released about four weeks ago, is a deluxe edition of Hotel California by the Eagles. The original album appeared in December 1976, so this special edition came out almost one year after the actual 40th anniversary. While Hotel California is my favorite Eagles album, more than the studio versions of the original record, it’s the live tracks that excite me in particular. Released for the first time, they were recorded prior to the album’s appearance during the band’s three-night stand at the Los Angeles Forum in October 1976. For additional thoughts on this anniversary edition, read here. Meanwhile, here is a clip of one of the live tracks, Hotel California, one of the first live performances of the epic tune.

The last special release I’d like to highlight is the 25th anniversary edition of Automatic For The People by R.E.M., which appeared in November. As I previously pointed out here, the 1992 release was the band’s 8th studio album, earning significant commercial success and a general positive reception from music critics. Here is a clip of what to me is the album’s standout, Everybody Hurts.

Other notable new releases

It is impossible to cover all new 2017 music I liked, even with breaking down this year-in-review feature into four parts. But at least, I’d like to mention other albums that are noteworthy to me: Ryan Adams/Prisoner (Feb 17), Deep Purple/inFinite (Apr 7), John Mayer/The Search For Everything (Apr 14), Sheryl Crow/Be Myself (April 21), Little Steven/Soulfire (May 19), Chuck Berry/Chuck (Jun 9), Lindsey Buckingham & Christine McVie/Lindsey Buckingham/Christine McVie (Jun 16), Alice Cooper/Paranormal (July 28), Steve Winwood/Greatest Hits Live (Sep 1), Ringo Starr/Give More Love (Sep 15), The Church/Man Woman Life Death Infinity (Oct 6), Bob Seger/I Knew You When (Nov 17), U2/Songs Of Experience (Dec 1) and The Rolling Stones/On Air (Dec 1).

The next part of this year-in-review feature will look at some of concerts I attended this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

What Would Summer Be Without Great Music?

A list of fun summer songs

Summer means many things – sun, swimming, beaches, outdoor barbecues, biking, vacation…the list goes on and on. All of these activities wouldn’t even be half as much fun without great music. So I thought I put together a list of tunes that capture summer associations.

Jan & Dean/Surf City (1963)

The Lovin’ Spoonful/Summer In the City (1966)

Eric Burdon & The Animals/San Franciscan Nights (1967)

The Who/Summertime Blues (1967)

Seals And Crofts/Summer Breeze (1972)

America/Ventura Highway (1972)

Bryan Adams/Summer of ’69 (1985)

The Beach Boys/Kokomo (1988)

Sheryl Crow/Soak Up the Sun (2002)

Kid Rock/All Summer Long (2008)

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

Sheryl Crow’s New Album Is a Nice Return to Her 90s Pop Rock Roots

After a winding road via Memphis soul and country music, Sheryl Crow returns to her pop rock origins of her early records in the 90s.

The title of Sheryl Crow’s new album, Be Myself, is a statement that you shouldn’t try to be somebody else than you really are. It also nicely fits the singer-songwriter’s conclusion that seeking success in the world of country came with unexpected roadblocks and requirements, which ultimately made the genre the wrong fit for her.

While Crow said she enjoyed the songwriting for her 2013 country album, which ironically was titled Feels Like Home, there were other things she didn’t like. “What I didn’t expect is that [country radio programmers] really don’t play women unless it’s Carrie [Underwood] and Miranda [Lambert], ” Crow told the Los Angeles Times. “The other thing I didn’t expect is how much you have to make yourself available to record promoters and radio programmers,” a tough proposition for Crow who is raising two young school-age children by herself.

Released last Fri (Apr. 21), Be Myself is Crow’s 10th studio album. Not only did she decide to return to her pop rock-oriented style of the 90s, she also collaborated with two people who played an important role during that period: Songwriter Jeff Trott and audio engineer Tchad Blake, who had been involved in Crow’s 1996 eponymous studio album and the 1998 follow-on, The Globe Sessions. Both albums sold well and won Gammy awards. Trott, who also co-produced the new record together with Crow, co-wrote many of her hits over the years, such as Everyday is a Winding Road, My Favorite Mistake, Soak Up the Sun and If It Makes You Happy, which is perhaps my favorite Crow song.

Cheryl Crow

Fans of Crow’s early work won’t be disappointed with the new album. The opener Alone in the Dark pretty much reflects the style of the record: mid-tempo, guitar-oriented pop rock with catchy melodies. Halfway There, which was released as the first single in early March, has a nice grove with effective touches of funky guitar and horns. Other standouts are the title song with a nice rock guitar solo, and Roller Skate, which has a cool guitar riff. Another aspect I like about the album is the music craftsmanship. At 55 years old, Crow comes from a generation of musicians who believes music should be played on real instruments rather than generated in the computer.

Initial reactions to the album have been positive. Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield called it “excellent” and her “toughest, best in a decade.” Writing for AllMusic, Steven Thomas Erlewine characterized the album as “strong, sophisticated pop.” Blurt’s Tiffini Taylor concluded, “Sheryl Crow is presenting a great musical journey with Be Myself. It’s a journey that everyone should get on board with, one that will be listened to for a very long time.”

I’m less optimistic than Taylor about the album’s longevity, given it sounds very different from most of the mediocre stuff dominating the charts nowadays. But Crow, who has proven has herself and – it’s safe to assume – also made good money in the process, seems to be at ease. “There is something really fantastic about being my age,” she said in an interview with USA Today.  “I don’t worry about repeating myself or wanting to be a better producer, a better songwriter, a better this or that. On this record, I was like, screw that. Let’s just close the door and not worry about who hears this.”

Here’s a nice clip of a live performance of Alone in the Dark, which apparently was captured just a few days ago from a show in New York City’s Bowery Ballroom.

Sources: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, AllMusic, Blurt, USA Today, YouTube