Yusuf (Cat Stevens) back on U.S. stage

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NEW YORK - Yusuf Islam, the former superstar once known as Cat Stevens, performed on stage before a live U.S. audience on Tuesday for the first time in nearly three decades as he promoted his first pop album since leaving the music world for life as a devout Muslim.

Mixing new songs with such old hits as "The Wind," "Oh Very Young" and "Peace Train," he sang with a gentle voice that sounded scarcely changed from his heyday in the 1970s.

Now going by just the name Yusuf, the British singer walked away from the musical spotlight in 1978 but returned to release his new album, "An Other Cup," last month.

"It's one small step for man, one giant step for common sense," joked the singer, 58, about his return. He played before an invitation-only audience of music industry professionals and others in Manhattan.

The performance will be broadcast on Santa Monica, California's KCRW radio and Webcast at www.kcrw.com on Thursday morning.

Thin, gray and bearded, Yusuf told the audience that he left the music world and began his spiritual search because, he said, "I got too big."

"I had to deflate myself," he said. "I needed to come back down to earth."

In the interim years, he founded Muslim schools in London and oversaw a charity to help orphans in war-torn countries.

Yusuf told the audience that he picked up a guitar for the first time in more than 20 years when his son brought one home. "My fingers knew just what to do," he said.

Now, he said, "I believe what I could do with a song is much more valuable than just giving a lot of talks.

"I feel I've been given a gift, and I should use it," he said.

Backed by guitars, percussion, a keyboard player and two vocalists, Yusuf played several songs from his new album, including the single "Heaven/Where True Love Goes," the catchy "Midday" and his version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," made popular by The Animals and by Nina Simone.

He finished his set with his megahit "Peace Train" and sang another popular favorite, "Father and Son" as an encore.

In 2004, he stirred controversy when he was denied entry into the United States because his name was on a U.S. government no-fly list. He has blamed the incident on a spelling error that caused confusion over his identity.

Earlier this week, Yusuf played some songs on a broadcast of National Public Radio and, earlier this month, he played at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway.
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