I can't remember the last time I heard a crowd at a concert do an "aw" followed by an immediate cheer. This was different to an "ah" and most certainly not an "oh". A definite "aw" in the way adults might gush over the cuteness of a toddler or an animal.

It's the sound of an emotional release about something precious and maybe even just a little bit dear.

Not the sort of words, nor the sort of noise you associate with a pop concert, but that was precisely what came involuntarily from the 9000 people at Spark Arena last night.

The cause? Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam strumming the opening notes of his 1970 caution to mankind, Where Do The Children Play.


Then came the cheer as the Auckland crowd erupted in shared acknowledgement that for whatever reason, this simple, almost entirely acoustic song is one that everyone seemingly loves.

Thirty-seconds of intro in and that wholly undiminished 69-year old voice began: "Well I think it's fine, building jumbo planes …"

People rose from their seats and sang full-volume like it was a fill-the-aisles party song, but still a song you feel an almost a personal ownership over. The sort of song to make people lean in to each other and proclaim, "this is my song" at the same time.

The sort of song to satisfy even the drunkard behind me who'd yelled five-minutes earlier: "Hey Cat! Play the hits we all know!"

I wanted to find him and point out that like Father And Son, another emotional high point of the night, Where Do The Children Play was never a hit single. Sure, there were cover versions that made the charts, but these two perfectly concise pieces of pop have long since become standards to transcend any initial top 40 success.

There hasn't been a time in my life when these songs haven't been a staple of radio in New Zealand.

The same goes for the bonafide Cat Stevens hits like Wild World, Moonshadow, Remember The Days Of The Old School Yard (done in a reggae style last night), Peace Train (reinvigorated with a bit of African gospel courtesy of a dexterous three-piece backing band to sound like a Paul Simon Graceland-era cast off), Matthew And Son and one of the earliest indicators of Stevens' interest in matters spiritual, last night's show-closer Morning Has Broken.

In between songs the autobiographical banter from the lean, silver-bearded Stevens touched on his faith and the cornerstones that led him to his well-documented conversion to Islam, namely, his near-death experiences with tuberculosis in 1969 and almost drowning in 1977.


That conversion caused Stevens to abandon his fame for more than a quarter of a century, unsure if religion and pop music could co-exist. Eventually he came round to the idea and even though he's toured regularly the past decade, there's still a fresh feeling of reflected joy from both artist and audience that these songs are no longer hidden away.

With an elaborate set that morphs from a London train station into a recreation of Stevens' childhood attic (complete with soft toys, art work and a record player), last night was a gig that somehow felt both intimate and grand in ambition.

This is Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam relaying his life story and through the warmth of that easy baritone, the strength of those melodies and a sincerity in his yarn-telling, it was a precious little gift of a concert.

Who: Cat Stevens
Where: Spark Arena, Auckland
When: Wednesday, December 13

* Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's The Two, Coast Soul on Coast and writes the music and travel blog RoxboroghReport.com.