It took all of 40 seconds.
The woman born Yolanda Quartey, standing before a sold-out Kessler Theater on Sunday night, resplendent in her Afro, clad in a black gown and performing under her musical moniker Yola, glided smoothly into the chorus of her song “Lonely the Night.” As she did, the ecstatic, effortless beauty of her voice — lined with life, rich with feeling — landed like the sweetest knockout punch.
Anyone not completely head-over-heels for the Bristol native at that moment must've been lying to themselves.
To call her 75-minute performance dazzling seems like a disservice to adjectives — the singer-songwriter, making her Dallas debut touring behind her 2019 freshman full-length effort Walk Through Fire, was simply flawless from first note to last, captivating a crowd not shy about shouting its affections, and filling in the blanks of her biography along the way.
Backed by a sharp quartet of musicians — keyboardist Ryan Connors, bassist Taylor Zachary, drummer Dominic Billett and electric guitarist Jerry Bernhardt; the latter pair also provided exquisite, sun-kissed harmony vocals — Yola worked through much of Fire, an album produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, a man who is gifted with some of the best taste in modern music.
As she explained during one monologue, the title track was written in response to a house fire — “I was a human torch, didn’t you know?” she joked — and how in order to shake herself out of shock, she needed to think of something worse than being on fire.
The 36-year-old Grammy nominee turned the tragedy into a haunting, extended metaphor for the searing hell of emotional uncertainty: “Did we light too many matches/Turn ourselves into these ashes/Did we throw it all away?”
Yola bills her sound as “country-soul,” and while there are certainly elements of both genres evident in her songs, she also folds in shades of gospel (“Walk Through Fire”) and Brill Building pop (“Shady Grove”), binding it all together with her wonderfully elastic, expressive voice.
Her sensibility is even broad enough to encompass some of her stylistic forebears: The Beach Boys, the Hollies, Elton John and Aretha Franklin were all honored Sunday with phenomenal covers of tracks both familiar and obscure — much credit to Yola for not picking obvious choices for either the Beach Boys or Aretha.
Whether she was crooning Elton’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” or leaning into the passion of Aretha’s version of Marvin Gaye’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” Yola was indisputably herself.
Covers can be a crutch for performers with little more than a handful of recorded tracks to their name, but Yola used the work of others to illuminate her own talent more fully — a trait possessed by far fewer names-on-the-verge than you might imagine.
At evening’s end, which arrived far too soon, the at-capacity crowd stomped its feet, demanding an encore Yola had cheekily already promised before the main set’s final number.
The sensation flooding the room at that moment was something like a collective euphoria, but it was one achieved not long after the star of the evening had taken the stage.
As we waited there in the dark, that giddiness shifted into the dawning realization that this night — this incredible, soul-stirring performance — would be one those in attendance would rave about to anyone who would listen for years to come.
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