Zee Avi played a beautiful set Tuesday night for a small crowd at the Egg’s Swyer Theater.
Sometimes lilting and exotic—she is from the island of Borneo—and other times straight up pop music, she is uncannily comfortable on stage in an intimate setting.
Her songs were short, very controlled and immediately consumable. Her singing is personal and sensual. Watching her deliver the song “Madness,” she had a vaudevillian swing, playing a kazoo solo after putting down her ukulele.
The audience was familiar with her single “The Book of Morris Johnson,” from her second and most recent album, “Ghostbird.” The small crowd sang the chorus for her.
Avi grew an audience through YouTube videos several years ago from her home, which led to a few offers from record labels. And while she didn’t fill the Swyer Theater, she had an excited crowd who know most of her songs.
She sang in her native language “Siboh Kitak Nangis” (which means “don’t you cry”). This was a slow, smooth tune with a drowsy, island feel. Clearly she is most at home with this music, and just as clearly she would not be touring the United States if she hadn’t Americanized her skills — she is a Brooklyn resident now.
Avi was backed by three guys—David Hurwitz on guitar, JP Maramba on acoustic and electric bass and Rafael Pereira on percussion.
The Swyer is so small and intimate that it can backfire for some performers and audiences. Not Avi, though, who relaxed the small hall with her warmth and comforting voice, and some occasional flirting.
During “Concrete Wall,” Avi slammed a bass drum with a mallet throughout the song. This was a little too jarring for the effect she was going for and was the only loudness all night.
“I feel very relaxed every time I play that song,” she said — not sure if the audience felt the same.
She sang “Bitter Heart,” perhaps her most familiar tune. Her final song was in “Manglish,” which she called a hybrid of English and Malaysian.
Her set was far too short. Everyone, including Avi and her band, seemed to be getting warmer. She should really design a longer set or have tunes ready to go when the vibe calls for it, as it did Tuesday night.
She fortunately returned to the stage for several encores, playing “Honey Bee” first, alone on stage. While the band served as appropriate support through the night and never distracted from Avi, she created the most intensity during that song by herself.
It’s only a matter of time before her audience outgrows the Swyer and fills the Hart Theater.
Local artist Bryan Thomas opened the show with a 30-minute set. Alone on acoustic guitar, he played original tunes.
His writing and delivery have a clear identity — he knows well his own musical voice. The songs can feel quirky, live and have one-off twists and turns that keep the listener attentive.
But Tuesday night, for whatever reason, he did not connect with the audience. This may have been his fault, or maybe it was the audience, who could have greeted him with more enthusiasm.
You could feel his nerves and it made us all a little tentative. A sensitive room like the Swyer — a fantastic room for music — can work for you, like it did for Avi. It didn’t work for Thomas.