I thought I knew what to expect when I signed up to review Zee Avi, the miniature Malaysian pop-folk figure: some cute singing, mushy high-school moments, and maybe an awkward coquettish joke or two about her strange accent. But instead I was treated to a one-woman variety show complete with jokes, preachy sermons, hair flips, and the spirit of Mo'Nique, Priscilla Ahn, and India.Arie all rolled into one.
The show was opened by a soulful white boy with skills on the keyboard, Joey Dosik. He set a beat machine on loop to fill out the sound on the first few songs, and it worked. Dosik was personable, playing old school R&B and gospel licks on the keyboard like one of the legends, while flashing a small-town smile into the microphone. His voice reminded me of the Bee Gees minus the disco (although there were two lonely disco balls spinning from the ceiling), and his slight country twang added a James Taylor/Robin Pecknold folk curve. He started the show off right.
At 10:30, Zee Avi strutted onto the stage with a swagger worthy of a Destiny's Child concert. She smirked, swayed her hips side to side, flipped her hair and bowed as if she had just won a Miss Malaysia crown. She then launched into a spirited cover of the disco hit “I Love the Nightlife.” It was all very intentionally over-the-top, and set the mood for the rest of the night.
With just her and an accompanying guitarist, she next pulled into an original, “Poppy,” with an upbeat springtime melody juxtaposed with dark lyrics about a man overdosing. “Empty, burned bottle on the carpet,” she sang. “My baby lying beside it.” Her voice burst with old jazz timbres reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald. It was clear the audience was full of friends of her music, as they sang along to the chorus fondly.
As the song ended she threw a crooked hand formation into the air, practically reminiscent of a gang sign, followed later by the phrase “mmhmm” accompanied by neck rolls. She told an endearing story after the first couple songs about one of her homegirls, who has a fetish for Asian hair accessories. “She said to me, 'Malaysian hair be big in the weave game.'”
But while Zee Avi is clearly the giver of sass, she took it from nobody. Before launching into her stripped cover of Morrissey's “First of the Gang to Die,” she asked the crowd to guess what Morrissey said when he heard her cover. A dudebro in the back responded, “Suck it! Suck it, chick!” Without missing a beat, Zee turned in his direction and yelled “Nuhh uh! Securrity!”
Zee floated through the Morrissey cover, her light alto wrapping an ethereal essence around the tune's somber lyrics. After the song, she asked, “Is the hater still in the house?” He wasn't.
Halfway through the set, she dropped her guitar and snatched up the microphone to do a song in a foreign tongue, “Siboh Kitak Nangis,” which she introduced as the only song on an internationally-released album sung in her native Sarawak-Malay language. (Zee is super indie – the language isn't even popular in Malaysia) She danced slowly and spread her arms to the heavens (or rather the warehouse ceiling). It was difficult not to fall in love with her during these moments. After all, she is the quintessential package of cuteness; with a body as short as her name (she's barely 5 feet tall), her every movement demanded attention that the audience had no choice but to give.
Zee shined the most, though, when she came down to a stilling quiet, turned the theatrics off, and sang “Honey Bee” with just her guitar and great sincerity.
Throughout the night Zee Avi captivated the audience with both reflective, quiet moments that made the heart sigh, and rambunctiously loud bursts that made the heart squeal. Few can make a sit-down crowd stand up, clap and dance along to just an acoustic guitar and a soft voice. But that's what Zee Avi's about – doing the stuff others can't.
Personal Bias: I kind of want to put Zee Avi into my pocket and run away with her, so it's no surprise that I almost didn't mention her few instrument blunders and pitchy notes. But nobody's perfect.
The Crowd: Gray-haired social security collectors, children, fewer Malaysians than Zee expected, and the minimum quota of American Apparel shoppers that must be at the Echoplex at all times.
Random notebook dump: The sound at the Echoplex is perfect for an acoustic or stripped set.