"Marry me!" called out one enraptured audience member Tuesday night at ACL Live, a few songs into Yola‘s first appearance on "Austin City Limits," which kicked off the historic program’s 46th season of tapings. The spectacular singer handled it in style and good humor. "That‘s my first marriage proposal," she mused, before replying, "It’s a hard no, though. I‘m busy!"
Indeed she was. When Yola wasn‘t engaging in lighthearted repartee with the crowd during her hourlong set, she was knocking them dead with song after glorious song from her 2019 debut album, "Walk Through Fire," which earned her four Grammy nominations, including one for best new artist.
Yola (full name: Yolanda Quartey) didn’t win an award at last week‘s Grammys, but it seems only a matter of time before she will. The British singer-songwriter, who first played Austin during last year’s South by Southwest and returned in the fall for the Austin City Limits Music Festival, is a red-hot commodity now. She plays her first venue-headlining gig here on Saturday at Scoot Inn (7:30 p.m. doors, $20-$25, scootinnaustin.com) before returning next month to open for Chris Stapleton at the Erwin Center.
» PHOTOS: A-List gallery of Yola‘s "Austin City Limits" taping
Tuesday‘s taping, which was livestreamed on the program’s YouTube channel, featured Yola and her four-piece backing band — guitarist Jerry Bernhardt, keyboardist Ryan Connors, bassist Taylor Zachary and drummer Dominic Billett — in a very simple setup that put all the focus on the music. At the center is Yola‘s powerful and deeply soulful voice, a once-in-a-lifetime instrument that found an ideal collaborator in Black Keys guitarist Dan Auerbach, who produced "Walk Through Fire" and released it on his Easy Eye Sound label.
Yola‘s voice is so strong that sometimes, as on the tour-de-force lead single "Faraway Look," she’s already pushed toward the heavens in the verses, before the sweeping chorus kicks in. Other songs, such as the show-opening "Lonely the Night," are carefully constructed with pre-chorus sections that keep the magic under wraps for a few more tantalizing bars, until the floodgates open when that chorus arrives.
Yola played all but two songs from her debut album, which featured 12 tracks she mostly co-wrote with Auerbach and some of his regular collaborators, including Pat McLaughlin, Bobby Wood and Joe Allen. Her songs draw from classic soul, country, folk, blues, jazz, gospel and more, and it‘s partly this broad spectrum that makes her music special.
It would not be hard for her to play more toward the realm of soul shouters such as the late Sharon Jones, as was clearly evident when Yola blew the roof off the joint at the end of Tuesday‘s performance with the Ashford & Simpson gem "You’re All I Need to Get By" (a hit for Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell in the 1960s and Aretha Franklin in the ’70s). But perhaps more indicative of her musical identity were two other covers that revealed her fondness for 1970s pop hits: Elton John‘s "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" (included on the deluxe edition of the album) and the Hollies’ "The Air That I Breathe."
The day seems not far off when Yola could tour with a significantly larger ensemble that could fully flesh out her sound. The album features dramatic string swells, and it‘s easy to imagine a horn section giving bright punches to her many uplifting numbers. For now, though, consider this a rare chance to catch a breathtaking songbird just as she’s beginning to soar.