H.E.R. has had an eventful couple of years. Scoring a gold record with her full-length self-titled debut, a NPR Tiny Desk concert and two 2019 Grammy Awards for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Performance, the erstwhile Gabriella Wilson has moved from strength to strength since beginning her performance career ten years ago. The fast-rising singer and songwriter brought her award-winning artistry to the ACL stage for the first time with a set of songs guaranteed to slow jam the night away.
After a brief intro from her six-piece band, multi-instrumentalist H.E.R. took the stage with an acoustic guitar for the funky “Carried Away,” also contributing bass and electric piano solos before the song’s end. She picked up a pair of drumsticks to pound out the intro of the Latin-influenced “2.” Hands-free, she said she was proud to be on “this legendary stage,” before giving her husky alto a workout on the roiling “Feel Away” and the lush “Avenue.” Donning her acoustic guitar, she sang a couple of verses of Deniece Williams’ “Free,” leading directly into her hit ballad “Best Part,” with backup singer Malik Spence delivering original duet partner Daniel Caesar’s lines. Built on a fingerpicked acoustic guitar figure, “Fate” danced gracefully on the line between folk and soul.
While engaging the crowd in call-and-response “whoa’s,” H.E.R. switched to a plexiglass Stratocaster for the soulful, gospel-informed anthem “Hard Place,” a clear audience fave. After that bag of originals, she pulled a surprising cover: Northern Irish songwriter Foy Vance’s lighter-waving ballad “Make It Rain.” Though it was originally popularized by Ed Sheeran on the soundtrack for the TV show Sons of Anarchy, H.E.R. made it her own with blues rock guitar soloing and powerhouse singing. The crowd agreed, going nuts as she paused at the end for dramatic effect. She moved back to the electric piano for the slow jamming hit “Focus,” a song that allowed her to really show off her liquid vocal flexibility. That tune also served as a jumping-off point for a grooving cover of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s “X Factor,” clearly a key influence. The band kept that rhythm going for “As I Am,” namechecking Hill by comparing her lover to “my favorite Lauryn song.” Then it was time for “Lights On,” one of her earliest hits and a song that actually required phone participation, as everybody held their lights into the sky. H.E.R. responded by re-donning her electric guitar and seguing into the guitar solo coda for Prince’s “Purple Rain.” With the backing vocalists and crowd singing the “ooo-ooo’s,” H.E.R. took us all home on her Strat and quit the stage to thunderous applause. And that was the end of a remarkable show from an explosive young talent. We can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.