When someone screams "Allahu Akbar!" in a crowded theatre, it's only human to flinch, such are the sad realities of our troubled century. To my credit, I manage not to duck. We are, after all, at a Yusuf Islam concert, where it's to be taken as an expression of joy, not a harbinger of imminent death.
In terms of PR and public perception, converting to Islam hasn't worked out as well for the man born Steven Demetre Georgiou – but best known as Cat Stevens – as it has for certain other celebrities. Cassius Clay restyling himself as Muhammad Ali didn't hurt the boxer's image one jot, in this country at least. Crucially, he kept on fighting. When Cat Stevens became Yusuf Islam in 1978 after a near-drowning experience, he turned his back on the pop world more or less entirely, putting his energies into founding a single-faith school.
The God-is-great shouter is in a tiny minority, and one wonders how much of an inroad he's made into the Muslim consciousness. The audience are overwhelmingly white, characterised, in thought if not in crassness, by the Scouser who repeatedly heckles "Play all the 'its for us! The ones we know! "Father And Son"! "Lady D'Arbanville!" We like Cat Stevens!"
"Lady D'Arbanville"? We should be so lucky. Nothing so secular, sexually-charged and lust-wracked as that. But in a voice with which two hundred millennia of evolution have blessed him – an acidic attack at the start of each line, a natural vibrato at the end – you'd listen to him sing anything, even "Morning Has Broken".
Not all audiences have been so patient. The concert proper is preceded by a 25-minute showcase of Yusuf's new stage musical, Moonshadow, with a cast led by Noel Sullivan (the Welsh one out of Hear'Say) dressed as a Les Mis-style 18th-century peasant, in front of awful Roger Dean-style artwork. In Ireland, this section caused an angry walkout, to which the singer wryly refers tonight: "I had a bit of a storm in Dublin ...." In Birmingham, as a precaution, every seat comes with a card bearing an explanatory running order.
Along with material from recent releases, we do get some of the hits: a crowd-placating "Wild World", and a rendition of "Father And Son" which strips away layers of Boyzone syrup and becomes, once again, a song that can break you to pieces. There's also "Don't Be Shy" from his soundtrack to Hal Ashby's film Harold And Maude.
Once or twice – "I Think I See The Light", "Bad Brakes" – he rocks a little, but it's mostly the warm, acoustic fare you'd expect from Cat Stevens at 61. The Roadsinger tour portrays him as a street-corner busker, complete with a streetlamp and a backdrop of an open velvet-lined guitar case. Now and then he'll sit on a wooden crate, tell a fable about a man and a donkey, and get a little crabby, in a jokey way, when a minion fails to bring him a mug of tea. He is, on the face of it, an avuncular and benign figure, who is donating the proceeds from this show to an unnamed charity.
"You may have heard about a little trip I made to the States ..." he says before "Boots And Sand", the song which reminds us that in recent years Yusuf has arguably been more sinned-against than sinning. In 2004, in a probable case of mistaken identity, he was turned away from the US as a security risk. British newspapers attempted to link him to terrorism, for which he successfully sued. "Why must we go on hating?", he pleads tonight on "Peace Train". A back projection shows Yusuf riding in a camper van with a CND logo.
Pop has its dreamers, and pop has its schemers. And in Jake Shillingford, it had both. At the start of the 1990s, Shillingford – the archetypal skint romantic with big ideas – was working the door of what was then The Camden Palace, and composing the songs for what would become My Life Story's debut album, Mornington Crescent.
One problem: he didn't have a band, but he needed a full orchestra. Somehow, with a mixture of charm, salesmanship and strategically-placed small ads on the pinboards of a music college, he began recruiting, and miraculously held together a dozen-strong symphonic pop ensemble on a shoestring budget. The "greatest living singer, stuck inside a damp bedsitter", to quote "You Don't Sparkle", began to make his vision a reality. MLS had a run of chart-scraping singles but never quite reached the big time.
Tonight, back where it all began, the barely-aged Shillingford scatters a pack of playing cards into the air (a cheap but effective stunt), invokes the ghosts of Charlie Chaplin and Bon Scott, and leads his band through a glorious recreation of their debut album – equal parts Bunnymen and John Barry – for a rapturous full house.
The highlight is "Girl A, Girl B, Boy C", a song whose sinister, sleazy swagger is only slightly ruined when you're exposed to the joke that it's about Boycie from Only Fools And Horses, but it's nearly eclipsed by the exuberant encores of "Strumpet" and "Twelve Reasons Why I Love Her". My Life Story remain a compelling how-to blueprint for bedroom daydreamers with ambitions beyond their means. But that's irrelevant amid the catgut-shredding glory of their reunion concerts. They still sparkle, they still shine.Reuse content