Staging a month-long series of gigs might have been the only way to reflect the rich and diverse legacy of Island Records, the independent company Chris Blackwell founded in Jamaica 50 years ago. As it was, the week of events held in London just about did justice to Island's illustrious past as well as its present and future within Universal, the biggest of all the majors in the industry. Pick of the bunch was Senegalese singer Baaba Maal, some very special guests and Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, who contributed so much to Island's success in the Seventies and is now back on the legendary label.
Backed by a 10-piece band, Maal showed just how much he is part of the Island tradition and in particular Blackwell's championing of music with a groove. "Tindo Quando", "Djarabi" and "Dakar Moon" mixed African rhythms with Maal's melancholy voice and melodies but the set really took off with the introduction of a punchy horn section for the joyful "African Woman" and "'International". Jumping and high-kicking, Maal was mesmerising, his ululating vocals were spine-tingling.
Maal then introduced "a fan, a brother" adding "we share the respect of one person, Mr Nelson Mandela", a heavy hint as to the identity of the much talked about special guests. Indeed, Bono walked on, with the rest of U2 in tow for a semi-unplugged version of "One". With Larry Mullen Jr on percussion rather than a full kit, The Edge on acoustic guitar and Adam Clayton on electric bass, U2 were in a more subdued mood than their grandstanding stadium selves, Bono restricting himself to the occasional expressive hand gesture. This suited the occasion, as he traded lines with Maal on "One" before singing "sister, brother" in unison and then drifting into Bob Marley's "One Love", a nod to Island's most iconic artist. "We've got one more in us," quipped Bono into "Vertigo", better in this low-key version than as the raucous introduction to their last live tour. They were gone too soon, though Bono came back to introduce "a singer, troubadour, poet, pilgrim, guitar picker, natty dresser, pop star, icon, iconoclast, the singer and writer of some of the finest ever songs: Yusuf."
Yusuf more than lived up to that comprehensive introduction. Now grey of hair and beard, wearing glasses and heckled "granddad!" by his own grandchildren, he seems to have become the wise man who came up with the life-affecting lyrics of his early-Seventies material. He started gently with "Welcome Home", the opening track of Roadsinger, the second of his albums since returning to the studio, but soon rolled back the years with "Lilywhite" from Mona Bone Jakon, his first recording for Island as Cat Stevens 40 years ago. It was genuinely moving to see him reconnect with his earlier self, his timeless songs, his loving audience and his old compadre, guitarist Alun Davies – a featured player on many of his classic albums, including Tea for the Tillerman, Teaser and the Firecat, and Catch Bull at Four.
New compositions like "Thinking 'Bout You" and "The Rain" sounded as good as the epochal "Where the Children Play" and "Miles from Nowhere". Taking a breather and sitting down at a table, he delivered a masterful rendition of "The Wind" and referenced the musical he's been working on by way of introducing "Be What You Must", also from the new album.
With his 20 years' absence from public performance, it's been easy to forget he was the archetypal singer-songwriter from the British Isles. The much-loved "Wild World" and the recent "Boots and Sand", written after his deportation from the US in 2004, proved his appeal can be both nostalgic and topical. He reclaimed "Father and Son" from the clutches of Ronan Keating and encored with "Peace Train", another prescient song in a set packed with gems. It's good to have him back.