The Rapidian

A Tribute to Cat Stevens: Seth Bernard and Friends sing out

Review of May 7 "Tribute to Cat Stevens" Concert @ Wealthy Theater
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Upcoming tour dates

Seth Bernard and May Erlewin have several upcoming shows in West Michigan. Details can be found on their website.

May 22: East Lansing Arts Festival

June 4: Founder's Brewery, Grand Rapids

June 10: Buttermilk Jamboree, Delton

June 11: Great Bear Music Festival, Bloomingdale

June 17: Earthwork Farm, Lake City

June 25:  Grand Rapids Water Festival

June 26: Camp Blodget Concert Series, West Olive

June 30:  Bell's Brewery, Kalamazoo

May Erlewine and Seth Bernard

May Erlewine and Seth Bernard /Courtesy Photo

“Growing up, Cat Stevens was a real hero of mine, and one of my biggest influences. He helped me to be my best self.”

With that personal tribute, homegrown singer-songwriter Seth Bernard opened a heartfelt homage Saturday night to legendary songsmith Cat Stevens.

It was the latest performance in the Wealthy Theatre’s Centennial Concert Series, part of its ongoing Sustainability Campaign. As one of the theater's staff remarked before the show, Bernard and his partner, May Erlewine, “have a built-in crowd,” one which defined the lively, appreciative audience of 250.

Watch a video of the performance here.

The world-traveling Michigan favorites were joined onstage by longtime friends and musical collaborators Michael Shimmin and Dominic Davis. Shimmin, whose percussive talents have complemented acts from Madcat and Kane to The Red Sea Pedestrians, added his signature acoustic-friendly touch on drums. Davis, following a winter tour featuring national late-night television appearances with rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson, translated  the best of his upright bass stylings into electric form. (The group’s close bonds range off-stage as well: Dominic acts as de facto tour manager, while he and Michael will be groomsmen in Bernard and Erlewine’s upcoming wedding.) Together the tight-knit foursome rose fluidly to the occasion, faithfully rendering an iconic gallery of Stevens' most beloved and intricately crafted work.

Crediting Wealthy Theatre Director Erin Wilson with the inspiration for the tribute concert, Seth and company set up the evening as a recreation of a vinyl album listening session, with two sides of material punctuated by a disc-flipping intermission.

Side A began with “Don’t Be Shy,” from 1971’s "Harold and Maude" soundtrack. Erlewine’s elegant piano lines wove around Bernard’s solo vocals on an opener that quickly drew children from the audience to dance in front of the stage, a spontaneous addition to the music that would continue throughout the night. That was followed by “Moonshadow,” said to be Stevens’ personal favorite among his older material, played out as an audience sing-along from chorus to chorus.

Bernard introduced the semi-autobiographical “Father and Son” by describing an emotional moment when he played the piece for his own father. Though the ballad’s wide-ranging melody can challenge the best of singers, Bernard’s earnest delivery carried it well, buttressed by the clarity of his acoustic picking and Davis’ nuanced backing vocals on the unusual chorus. “Where Do the Children Play?” began in familiar elegiac tone, but reached a noisily rocked-out pitch complete with fuzzy guitar effects in the third verse, before returning to a hushed timbre in finale.

The funkiest passage of the night busted out in “Mona Bone Jakon,” a lesser-known bluesy jam from the 1970 album of the same name. Seth ripped out dirty Frampton-esque fills in between lyrics, showing off amazing electric-acoustic props on a number in high contrast to the night’s ballad tone, with his backing trio romping through the cut like dogs off a leash in a muddy garden.

Before breaking for intermission, Bernard gave a shout-out to fellow activists and media creators in the crowd, with a special nod to the Community Media Center and Wealthy Theatre itself. The honored troubador’s vinyl albums were awarded to audience members who correctly answered trivia questions (did you know Stevens’ birth name is Steven Demetre Georgiou?). Seth and May then wrapped up the first set with a duet on “Tea for the Tillerman”, from the artist’s second 1970 album of the same name, which made Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.

Side B rolled out with a dreamy guitar-effects instrumental leading into Bernard’s solo on “Morning Has Broken,” a 1930s Christian hymn covered by Stevens on his 1971 "Teaser and the Firecat" album. The headliner’s plaintive vocals and spare acoustic guitar lines brought out the morning-psalter feel of the piece, illuminating sacred themes that have echoed throughout the stages of Stevens’ career. The company rejoined the stage for “The Wind,” featuring a catching instrumental call-and-response between May and Seth on piano and guitar respectively, with May’s keyboard ringing out in clear, crisp tones that sailed over the room.

The timeless “Trouble” is probably best known from its appearance in the seminal cult classic "Harold and Maude," and can be heard on the soundtracks to a number of films and television episodes. Written while Stevens was recovering from a near-fatal bout with tuberculosis, the tribute band’s version was no less moving than the original, with intricate vocal harmonies woven between Bernard and Shimmin, and given sharp emotional punctuation by Michael’s drums. This segued into the dramatic, instrumental-dominated interlude “Time,” followed by the infectious sing-along “Wild World,” pulling children and adults onto the floor.

Bernard then paused to deliver a lyric reading of Stevens’ song “Jesus” as a way to address the controversy the artist, now known as Yusuf Islam, has attracted in the years since he converted to Islam. He spoke of Stevens’ advocacy of Islam; of his public emphasis on its original scriptural message of peace and tolerance; and how that message and Muslims themselves have fared in a post-9/11 world.

Stevens has had a long career, one defined by early adulation and later censure and condemnation. Without delving into the particulars of how and why audience perceptions of Stevens/Islam may have shifted over the years, Bernard stressed the need for compassion and understanding in a world split on many levels. It was a timely and soft-spoken appeal to recognize the greater good within individuals and movements within and outside the musical world.

That message was brought home with a high-energy rendition of the anthem “Peace Train,” leading naturally into the evening’s bookend, “Sing Out," with the house lights up, and the much-loved duo singing as they walked into an audience now on its feet, cheering. It was a classic feel-good ending to a feel-good concert, one whose theme of connection, community, and celebration of life was loudly affirmed by a crowd whose joyful noise embodied all those values.

As May Erlewine said of her first time listening to Cat Stevens, “I felt like he cared for me personally. It was the same way I felt the first time I heard Seth sing.” That night, we did too, on both counts.

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Comments

it really was a night we felt cared for by the musicians. thanks for taking the time to share this experience with those unable to attend.

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