New York neo-folkie Dar Williams had never actually been to Schenectady before her performance at the Eighth Step in Proctors’ GE Theatre Saturday night. She certainly made a great first impression.
Before a good-sized crowd, Williams displayed her full range of talents, from her powerful vocals to intricate guitar playing to soulful songwriting. Though a newcomer to this city, she’s played the Eighth Step before in its various incarnations, and it showed in her comfortable, warm performance.
Opening with “Spring Street,” Williams showed off the full range of her vocals immediately, going from a husky soprano on the verses to airy falsetto on the choruses. Bryn Roberts helped fill out the sound with both electric keyboard and grand piano, deftly switching between both instruments to create atmospheric organ and piano lines, even throwing in some harmony vocals for good measure.
The first set touched upon both upbeat tracks such as “The Easy Way” and more somber material — the lilting ballad “If I Wrote You” was a highlight of the evening. Throughout, the main attraction was Williams’ powerful voice, which weaved in and out of the sparse instrumentation to create a strong melodic foundation off which everything else sprung.
As mentioned, Williams has been a frequent visitor to the Eighth Step since the ’90s, which allowed her to keep the mood bright and loose. She joked before the sprightly “Calling the Moon” that she normally performs the song earlier in her sets, with dry ice and fairies and trolls — “They’re late!”
The equally bouncy “Buzzer,” an ode to the Stanley Milgram obedience and authority experiments, provided humor even with the song’s contemplative subject, framed by inventive chord changes, yet a classic folk melody.
“Are You Out There,” an ode to subversive underground radio, kept the energy high, with more tight interplay between the two musicians onstage. Williams closed the hour-long first set on solo guitar and vocal with “The Babysitter’s Here,” an ode to her ’70s activist baby sitter that again provided gentle humor with a poignant undercurrent.
Williams came back alone, as well, to kick off the second half with a new song. Roberts then returned for another new tune off an upcoming album based on Greek mythology — this one, “This Earth,” dealing with the god of forges and volcanoes, Hephaestus. It was a surprisingly sweet and melancholy number for such an unusual folk song topic.
Highlights of the second set included “You’re Aging Well,” another ballad focusing on a breakup, and the more upbeat “As Cool as I Am,” which Williams explained actually started as a ballad. It certainly evolved away from that, with Williams slamming out loud chords on her acoustic and nearly overpowering the keyboards and even vocals.
Given the time of year, Williams played a few holiday-themed songs to close out the evening — her NPR-commissioned “Christians and Pagans” was a call to unity across religious boundaries, delivered with Williams’ disarming earnestness. The encore “February” was a gentle ode to winter in New York, closing out the evening on a quiet, yet still satisfying, note.