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Review: Yola – Festival Marquee, CQAF 2019

While it seemed like the rest of Belfast were going a wee bit mental watching the nail-biting climax of the English Premiership, a sizable number of more musically-minded folk were attending the penultimate gig of this year’s festival in the CQAF marquee. Surely there was no better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon, winding down with the warm and soulful sound of one of Britain’s rising soul stars and former backing vocalist with the likes of Massive Attack and The Chemical Brothers. Her debut album Walk Through Fire (produced by Dan Auerbach) was released in February of this year to solid reviews and it was a pleasant surprise to see Yola fetching up in Belfast as part of her tour to promote the album.

The sound, thanks to the excellent musicians on stage, was exquisite; we were treated to a tight five-piece band which included keyboards and a lap steel and whose playing never overwhelmed the songs. There was nothing flashy or extravagant; they did what they were there for and provided the perfect backing to Yola’s voice. And what a voice it is – mid-range but rich and full of soul and emotion and very capable of hitting the high notes when required.

Some of the tracks have a laid-back west coast country rock feel to them; think The Eagles or maybe Manassas. “Shady Grove” and “Rock Me Gently” definitely stood out in that regard.  “Love All Night (Work All Day)” had much more of a swing feel to it and as noted earlier, and Joe Coombs’ lead guitar breaks complimented the song without being over the top. Yola is (at least in this reviewer’s opinion) a throwback to the sweet soul style of the likes of Gladys Knight. At other times, especially on tracks like “Faraway Look” she is more reminiscent of the great Dusty Springfield with the same flawless, bold sound and delivery.

She is also extremely personable and warm, talking between songs about her life and experiences. Yola goes out of her way to build intimacy with the audience.

The introduction to “Walk Through Fire” was both heart-breaking and sad, but followed up with a beautiful, uplifting gospel number filled with metaphors about rivers, crossing over and salvation and again, there were little touches of Mavis Staples during the chorus. We get a re-worked and more up tempo version of “What You Do” from her debut EP Orphan Offering.

A cover version of “Never Go Back” allows some Nile Rogers-style funky chopping guitar and, having set her guitar down, Yola can start to move, hip-shaking and punching the air like a revivalist preacher. “Love Is Light” is served as an uplifting pop tune packed with keyboard riffs and slide guitar breaks. She keeps “Faraway Look” until the end and does this song justice, stretching out the vocal notes.

Naturally there’s a standing ovation before the band return for one encore. Strangely this is a mash up of two covers; Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Joe Cocker’s “The Letter.” While the two songs fit well together and were certainly crowd pleasers, this wasn’t as interesting or inspiring as the original material that the crowd had spent the last hour enthralled by.

In summary, if you fancied a chilled out Sunday away from the stresses and strains of football, Yola was always going to be a good bet. Her voice is amazing, her band were sublime and the original material is a pure trip back to older days when soul and R&B meant what they said. As a lifelong Liverpool fan, this was the better place to be today, no question about it.

Photographer and sometime reviewer with an eclectic taste in all things visual and musical. Still struggles to understand jazz.