The Eighth Step’s shows are usually eclectic, but Buffy Sainte-Marie’s performance Friday night in Proctors’ GE Theatre was nearly schizophrenic, in the best possible way.
Over the course of her two-hour set, Sainte-Marie and her full band touched on music from throughout her six-decade career, going from soft, whispered folk ballads to punk rock fury at the drop of a hat. For the packed crowd, it was an unpredictable musical roller coaster that never once let up in intensity, even during the most contemplative moments.
Taking the stage shortly after 8 p.m., following a traditional Native American thanksgiving ceremony from local Mohawk elder Tom Porter, Sainte-Marie wasted no time getting the crowd riled up, launching into her country classic “Piney Wood Hills.” Things kicked up a notch further with the raging party anthem “Cho Cho Fire,” one of many new songs Sainte-Marie tackled from her latest album, 2009’s “Running For the Drum.”
Sainte-Marie has assembled a top-notch band of all Native Americans, like herself — Jesse Green on lead guitar, Mike Bruyere on drums and Leroy Constant on bass. The trio was able to keep up with Sainte-Marie’s boundless energy — no small feat considering the singer-songwriter is in her late 60s. Even with all of the stylistic curve balls being thrown at them throughout the evening, the band never faltered, maintaining the same high level of musicianship throughout.
Initially, the rockers felt a bit too muted, as if the sound men were afraid of cranking the guitars for a folk crowd. The chugging riffs of “No No Keshagesh” were buried under Bruyere’s thudding drums. But as the set progressed, the levels got much better — the straight-up groove rock of “Generation,” the scintillating “Priests of the Golden Ball” and the anthemic set closer “Starwalker” all achieved a big sound, without the deafening roar of an arena rock show.
On “Generation” in particular, the band really cut loose, with Green taking a shredding solo.
Sainte-Marie was still the star though, and she delivered mighty vocal performances on old favorites (“Up Where We Belong,” “Universal Soldier”) and forgotten gems (“The Big Ones Get Away,” “Look at the Facts”) alike. The bouncing “Country Girl,” a song from her “Sesame Street” days, was a highlight of the entire show, bringing the always-present joyful undercurrent of the entire performance to the immediate forefront.
Another highlight was “Blue Sunday,” a new song that found Sainte-Marie in rockabilly mode. Though her first musical loves were rockabilly artists like Scotty Moore, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, as she related to the audience, “It has taken me this long to write a rockabilly song.” The results were enough to make you hope she keeps writing more.
There were some “out there” moments, such as “Cripple Creek,” which featured Sainte-Marie singing and playing the mouth bow — amazingly enough, at the same time. “Relocation Blues” was another Sainte-Marie solo, featuring microphone percussion and vocals only.
But overall, these diversions from the full-throttle band performances proved welcome, and the wildly different personalities on display made for an immensely engaging, powerful performance.