A glowing star of stages and screens of various sizes and media, Vanessa Williams played a hit-heavy, two-hour show in Seneca Niagara Casino on Saturday night. She was backed by her superb band – a big part of her sonic success as a recording and touring artist for the past 25 years. Three backup singers (including Williams’ daughter, Jillian Hervey) enriched the sound with soulful harmonies.
She is an artist seemingly at ease moving between television studios, Broadway theaters and stages shared with musicians while working a microphone and a room. She also co-authored a book last year with her mother, Helen Williams Tinch, a Buffalo native. This reviewer had the pleasure of seeing Williams on stage in Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway in “The Trip to Bountiful,” in which she, along with Cicely Tyson and Cuba Gooding Jr., created a wrenching and lovely triumph.
Williams sashayed to center stage Saturday night amid a wash of strong white light, a vision in a form-fitting black leather and sparkling ensemble, joining the band on “The Real Thing,” a jazz lounge-appropriate song of intense longing. “There is no other someone that can ease my aching heart,” the song laments.
Before beginning her 1988 hit “Dreamin,’ ” Williams shouted an inclusive and geographic-specific greeting to the crowd: “Niagara Falls! Buffalo! Western New York!” She and her vocalists ended the song with rich harmonies while vivid guitar work by guitarist Keith Robinson made the familiar song surprisingly refreshed.
The set moved on to another of her well-loved songs, “Love Breaks Your Heart,” with rich accompaniment by pianist Rob Mathes, also a virtuosic guitar player and singer. Williams mentioned her long, flowing locks while introducing “Colors of the Wind,” the Academy Award-winning song from the Disney rendition of “Pocahontas”: “I tried to replicate the hair.”
Williams pointed proudly in her mother’s direction in the audience as she dedicated the next song, “The Sweetest Days,” to her. She would fulfill her mom’s request to hear “Star Bright,” her holiday-themed tune, despite it being “past the holidays.” Williams sang the tune while seated on a stool after a costume change into a sleek and silvery gown.
Spotted with her own mom in the audience was Maryalice Demler, an anchorwoman with Channel 2. Bernice Demler was hoping to hear “Save the Best for Last,” and, like her daughter, is a longtime Williams fan. Demler cited the singer, a former Miss New York State in 1984, as an early inspiration. Demler won the same crown six years later.
Williams paid homage to two of her heroes, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, covering Khan’s “Everlasting Love” (ending it by exclaiming an iconic “Chaka Khan!”) and Wonder’s “Send One Your Love.” The latter performed by backup singer Darius de Haas, who Williams calls “an extraordinary tenor who I bring on the road with me whenever I can.” The two worked together on “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
A jaunty high point of the set was a medley of Johnny Mercer tunes, “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” After that it was on to the fun and demonstrative “Peel Me a Grape,” popularized by Diana Krall and first recorded in the early ’60s.
“I was born in the wrong era,” Williams said.
Funky “Work to Do,” a ’70s hit by the Isley Brothers, led to Williams musing about the passage of time before she sang “Oh How the Years Go By.”
“Thank you for being there,” she said to her fans and family in the room. “Save the Best for Last,” one of the night’s most emotional numbers, seemed a perfect ending.
Williams left the stage, but then returned, in dress No. 3 – long, flowing and earthy brown. She danced a solo calypso dance and the festive affair ended with “Betcha Never” before she twirled off stage, a sparkly glow left in her wake.