Tom Hanks and Austin Butler, the stars of Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis Presley/Colonel Parker film, might want to watch out. Yola has been cast in the presumably small role of gospel/guitar great Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but once she’s on set, Luhrmann might decide to turn tail and just turn the whole thing into a Tharpe biopic instead. (Or maybe, more realistically, he could do both; who wouldn’t welcome a Sister Rosetta movie as part of an Expanded Elvis Universe?)
That scenario didn’t seem so far-fetched, anyway, watching the singer’s first real L.A. headlining show Saturday at the Troubadour — part of a sold-out two-night stand that continues Tuesday night, which very much counts as an underplay after all the attention she got in recent months as a Grammy nominee for best new artist. She was not about to take that trophy from Billie Eilish, of course, but there is not much she would not thieve when any kind of personal appearance is involved. Last summer, she opened for Lord Huron and Shakey Graves at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was a wonder anyone stuck around for more after seeing the then-unknown’s pre-sundown set. This past week, at a gig on this tour up in Seattle, Yola enlisted her friend Brandi Carlile as her opening act. Imagine willingly slating Carlile as your opener, with the confidence to know you’re still going to own the night anyway: that’s chutzpah.
Of all this year’s worthy best new artist nominees, Yola is the best pure singer — actually, she’s probably the best pure singer to have popped up in any of the major categories, period — and there were probably few at the Troubadour unaware of their good fortune in getting to hear those chops in close quarters before she moves on to bigger venues. Her dynamic range is particularly impressive in an intimate setting: Yola is already famous for her restraint, on a 2019 debut album, “Walk Through Fire,” that emphasized the purer, sweet-and-low tone of her voice, only occasionally busting into her higher, Tina Turner-esque rasp. You get more of her Tina side in concert, and it’s as good a reason as any to buy a ticket. But the more time you spend with her, the more you value that reserve. She’d be grand company for an hour and a half even if she never raised her voice.
Does she raise it, though. On night one at the Troubadour, the soul stirrer got at least equal time with the careful balladress. Both facets were in evidence in her choice of covers. Announcing early on in the set that she’d developed a Graham Nash fetish in her earlier musical cherry-picking days, and a fondness for the Hollies in particular, she dived into “The Air That I Breathe” like an easy-listening queen nonpareil. Her actual Queen of Soul homage would have to come later, with the encore-ending “You’re All I Need to Get By” (a bigger hit for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell in the ’60s, actually, than it was for Aretha Franklin in the early ’70s, but it was Aretha’s version that Yola cited). In-between were two Elton John songs, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and, as a duet with opening act Amythyst Kiah, “Bennie and the Jets,” which ended up as a soul-shouting call-and-response in their hands.
“Bennie and the Jets” always seemed to come from some alternate universe when Elton did it, but in Yola’s hands, it felt like something that sprang out of the American South. That’s deceptive, of course, since she’s as British as Sir Reginald is. But Yola is the latest and certainly one of the recent greatest at indulging in the great trans-Atlantic tradition of taking distinctly American music and feeding it back to us, sounding all the better for the pond-skipping. That applies as well when she’s skewing closer to her love for country music. When she sings about a “Ride Out in the Country,” she’s probably not thinking about any countryside just outside of her native Bristol, and we certainly aren’t. Her music is big on humidity and breeziness … minor on any actual English mists.
Among the surprises for those who might only have heard her shorter sets as an opening act was a cover of her producer Dan Auerbach’s “Stand By My Girl.” “I was listening to that (solo) record, ‘Waiting on a Song’,” she said, “and as I was listening through it, I happened upon a song that I decided was mine. I dropped him a text, and I was like, ‘I’m having this one, just for live. You can still sing it if you want to.'” He may want to less, now.
Yola also debuted a new, post-album single, “I Don’t Want to Lie,” that is just about an inch closer to an upbeat, retro-R&B pocket than most of the relaxed, hybrid-y country-soul that “Walk Through Fire” stakes its claim on. It certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see her go even more in a pure soul direction, given the powerhouse vocal ability that she’s constantly keeping in — and letting out of — check. But one of the things to cherish about Yola, and something you might hope she never loses, is just how much she aims to revive the golden era of “adult contemporary” and re-up it to an art form.
There’s an element of cruise control to that ride out in the country she sings about that truly sets her apart. She’s Dusty in Memphis as well as ‘Retha in Detroit; she’s part mellow gold and part silver wrecking ball. (The joltingly deep chuckle that she lets out at times between songs makes you wonder what other yet-unexplored personalities may rest within.) May her genre-traversing last forever, but if she does eventually settle into more of a singular groove, she’s still likely to be one of the most singular voices we’ve got for decades to come.