The British-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Yola makes it a point to highlight the slippery stylistic nature of her songs, so much so that her merch booth features a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase she uses to describe her sound: “Genre-fluid.” (Thirty-five bucks and it’s yours to take home!)
Typically, such snappy shorthand is more marketing jargon than meaningful descriptor, but in Yola’s case, the deft summary is the exception to that rule.
Throughout her roughly 90-minute set Friday at The Studio at the Factory (why the venue needed to change its name from Canton Hall when the Bomb Factory was rebranded, I’ll never understand, but I digress), the Grammy-nominated artist shifted smoothly from bouncy, folk-pop anthems to shadow-streaked soul and gospel, her sweet and steely multi-octave voice matching the moment with grit and grace.
That she did so for a criminally small audience — Friday’s appearance was Yola’s third in North Texas in as many years, having last passed through town in August opening for Chris Stapleton at Arlington’s Globe Life Field — is more of an indictment of Dallas’ occasional penchant for studied indifference to musical quality than any slight to Yola’s abilities.
Put another way, her skill more than deserves a sold-out showing, but Dallas gonna Dallas.
Still, those who showed up were treated to a dazzling evening, and the barely half-full room more than made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in sheer numbers, frequently roaring its approval.
Multiple times throughout the night, the crowd of a couple hundred chanted her name as the songs, performed by Yola (who alternated between acoustic and electric guitar, as well as dabbling in percussion) and her backing quintet on a simply furnished stage, drew to a close: “If I could blush, I’d be blushing,” she confessed midway through.
Mostly, though, Yola buckled down and showcased much of her sophomore album, the sterling Stand for Myself.
It’s a tougher, deeper and more restless record than her 2019 debut, Walk Through Fire — the material grapples with being an ally (“Be My Friend”), sprinkles a breakup with disco dust (“Dancing Away in Tears”) and masks acidic political commentary with luminous melody (“Diamond Studded Shoes,” which Yola explained was inspired, in part, by Britain’s former Prime Minster Theresa May).
The 38-year-old musician also displayed a willingness to completely rewire her back catalog: “It Ain’t Easier,” from Fire, was recast as a sort of double-time Latin shuffle, while “Faraway Look” was blown up into a roof-raising ballad, and “Shady Grove” was pared back into a gorgeous, three-part harmony, filigreed with acoustic guitar.
From first note to last, the star of the evening was, as always, Yola’s incomparable voice, full and fierce and flattening.
By turns tender and tough, her facility with covering other artists’ work remains unparalleled, whether it’s Aretha Franklin (her mother’s favorite, “Day Dreaming”) or Elton John, to whom she paid tribute Friday — his 75th birthday — with a muscular cover of his “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” snarling about penthouses and plows.
As the T-shirt says, Yola’s affinity for a multitude of genres may fluctuate, but she is incapable of infusing any song, regardless of its style, with anything less than full feeling.
Such a gift is rare, and it is one which was on full display Friday night at The Studio at the Factory, beheld and rightly celebrated by those Dallas music fans wise enough to know when a phenomenal talent is in town.