If you followed the end of the year breakdowns ranking the best albums of 2019, you know that Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, is prominently featured everywhere from Rolling Stone to The Associated Press. Add four Grammy nominations – including nods for Best New Artist and Best Americana Album – to the equation and it is clear that the powerhouse songwriter has made her mark on the music industry with her timeless songs about love, life and near-death experiences.
A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, conjuring gospel with a whole lot of soul, Walk Through Fire, is an endlessly listenable studio triumph, however, Yola’s immense talents are all the more impressive – nay, jaw-dropping – in the live setting.
On Tuesday, Jan. 14, Yola performed a star-making set at Chicago’s Thalia Hall during what is her first headlining tour. Stepping on stage with her personality shining brighter than her Supremes-style sparkling dress, the Americana darling began the concert by belting out the beautiful ballad, “Lonely the Night.” From there she treated the full house to a collection of personal songs and crowd-pleasing covers that provoked ovation after ovation.
The 2019 album’s title track was quite literally inspired by a house fire from which the songwriter escaped as well as the tumultuous era of her twenties, explained Yola. Throughout the night, she took time out to share the inspirations for her music as well as tidbits from her time working with Dan Auerbach, who produced Walk Through Fire and whose “Stand by My Girl” was covered late in the set.
Goosebumps were made for the experience of hearing Yola sing her hit, “Faraway Look.” Each note was delivered with remarkable attentiveness – most notably in the chorus when it sounded as if she could sustain each tone for a lifetime – and her Herculean vocals induced hoots and hollers from the audience with every improvised flourish.
“This next song is about a certain lovely someone in my imaginary future,” the songstress shared as an introduction to the sweet tune, “Love Is Light.” Later, the hard-trodden love song, “It Ain’t Easier,” gave Yola’s four-piece backing band a chance to rock before she engaged in an a cappella call-and-response with the crowd. “Rock Me Gently,” “Shady Grove” and an augmented rendition of “What You Do” – from the acoustic EP Orphan Offering – were also enthusiastically received by everyone within the four walls of Thalia Hall.
“Stand by My Girl” wasn’t the only cover Yola performed during the Chicago show. Her expressive take on “The Air That I Breathe” and gusty version of “You’re All I Need to Get By” also brought down the house as did the pre-encore set’s “last song,” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which Yola has truly made her own with soaring phrases that whisked listeners off to Oz.
Earlier in the night, Amythyst Kiah shared songs from her upcoming album along with a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” which felt all the more significant thanks to Kiah’s explanation that she and Yola first met and became friends at a tribute to the aforementioned Queen of Country. Closing out her set with the Grammy nominated “Black Myself” – which Kiah wrote and performed with Our Native Daughters – Kiah brought fans to their feet with lyrics detailing the tragedy of slavery and the triumph of all the people who struggled, fought and persevered before her.
With one studio album under her belt, the artist born as Yolanda Quartey has created her own sound, her own style and her own name, Yola. Madonna, Beyonce and Cher need to make room in their universe for there’s a new mononymous star on the rise.
Yola’s Walk Through Fire World Tour will continue through the summer. Head over to Iamyola.com to pick-up tickets.