Written by Jane Ponte – Feb 07, 2020

After years of lending her distinctive, goosebumps-inducing vocals and writing talent to other artists, it was a treat and a privilege to be front and center for the one and only Yola last Friday night at The Heights Theater in Houston, TX. The artist, who proudly stood center stage on her first headlining tour ever, shone with a deliberate brilliance that will long be remembered by Houston fans, who continuously shouted out titles of favorite tunes and were cheering for more by the evening’s end.

Opening for Yola on this special night was Houston’s own Thomas Csorba. A recent graduate of Baylor University, Csorba is a baby-faced old soul whose performance recalled the artistry of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. In fact, when he first hit the stage, I was immediately reminded of Van Zandt by his appearance alone—he bears a striking resemblance to the late troubadour. He treated us to a flawless 30-minute set, and I have a strong suspicion that we certainly have not seen the last of this talented young man. A couple of highlights from his set were “Jericho” and “Plastic Jesus,” but ultimately, every song was as good as the one before, and his entire set was poignant and heartfelt, ending much too soon.

But then, it was time for Yola. I’d been waiting quite a while to see this engaging performer, whom I’ve been a fan of since hearing her lend her talents to other artists over the years. Rocking a cute floral print dress and a cropped black leather jacket, she entered onto the stage after her bandmates had begun an intro of sorts, and the crowd instantly erupted in eager applause and cheers. Touring in support of her new album, Walk Through Fire, (Easy Eye Records, 2019) produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, Yola snagged 4 Grammy nominations this year, and it was clear from the start of the evening that she came to have fun and to show us why she is so deserving of these nominations, which included Best New Artist and Best Americana Album.

Although many folks may not realize they’ve heard Yola before, she’s been around for almost 2 decades, and has lent her vocal prowess and songwriting talents to numerous bands and projects over the years, including Massive Attack, Phantom Limb, Katy Perry, The Chemical Brothers, and mostly recently, to Brandi Carlile’s supergroup, The Highwomen. Born and raised in Bristol, England, Yola—born Yolanda Quarty—was drawn to her mother’s record collection at an early age and cut her teeth to the sounds of Dolly Parton, Elton John, Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin, among others. She has said in the past that because she came from rather humble beginnings, she did not have much access to the internet or any listening devices, such as a tablet or an iPad. This modest upbringing helped her to forge her sound, because she couldn’t delve into the work of newer, more contemporary artists. Instead, she would spend hours listening to her mother’s vinyl collection on an older turntable, mimicking the vocal stylings of her idols. Since childhood, she’s known what she wanted to do with her life, and her dream has always been to play music. Judging from her spirited performance on Friday, she’s doing a remarkable job of fulfilling that dream while laying down a country-soul, R&B infused vibe that pays homage to her predecessors while shining a bright light on her own talent as well.

Onstage, Yola radiated both warmth and exuberance as she introduced each song she played and gave a brief background on most of them, including her harrowing yet humorous tale about penning “Walk Through Fire,” the title track from the new album. The song, which she co-wrote with producer Dan Auerbach and R&B legend Dan Penn, was one of many memorable tunes from her 90-minute set, which included new fan favorites and a handful of covers, such as Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” and a soaring rendition of The Hollies “Air That I Breathe.” She also covered a great version of Auerbach’s “Stand by My Girl,” and Aretha Franklin’s “All I Need (To Get By).”

One thing that stood out for me as I stood spellbound throughout this gifted performer’s set was that Yola’s incomparable voice deserves a larger, fuller band than the 4-piece ensemble that accompanied her. Don’t get me wrong—Yola’s band was beyond impressive, and they are all gifted performers in their own right. They allowed her to shine while laying down soulful grooves, perfunctory solos, and a playfulness that added to Yola’s appeal and rapport with her adoring crowd. I loved their performances, and thoroughly enjoyed the intimacy that this talented quartet provided. But I kept waiting for an impeccably arranged string section to come busting through to elevate Yola’s soaring vocals to even greater heights. Nevertheless, and despite what may have gone down with a larger ensemble, Yola’s performance was still masterful and stunning on every level. From the gorgeous opening tune, “Lonely the Night,” to radio favorite “ Ride Out in the Country,” on to “Faraway Look” and “I Don’t Wanna Lie,” her bold, searing, and heartfelt vocals permeated the room and reinforced the fact that her star is on the rise, and just beginning its ascent. I’m certain that in the very near future, as her fan base grows and she is able to expand on various levels, we will be seeing this gifted artist move on to larger projects and bigger venues. I’m grateful to have caught this magical performance last Friday. Yola is an artist that is sure to delight audiences—large or small—for years to come.

~ Jane Ponte