Backstage Zoe Viccaji pulls a face at her reflection as her stylist gives the loose side ponytail a tentative pat. “Okay, just don’t touch it,” the stylist advises.
“Don’t touch my hair for two hours?” Zoe is incredulous.
She is late — nearly an hour late. The crowd was receptive to a warm-up comedy sketch by Adeel Khalid of CityFM’s breakfast show, but now they are chanting, “Zo-eee, Zo-eee!”
The chanting climbs a pitch as Viccaji takes the stage. There is standing room only for the audience which consists of over 300 bodies packed into the Pakistan American Cultural Centre. And the crowd was ravenous for a piece of her.
Viccaji smiles, adjusts the microphone and says, “Wow…wouldn’t it be really embarrassing if I started crying right now?” The cheering just gets louder.
“This is great. I don’t even have to sing!” she quips, giggling with a sudden surge of confidence. Then she introduces Lenny Massey, the highly proficient piano player for Aunty Disco Project, and opens with the first song she ever wrote — a 16-year-old’s break-up anthem, heavily influenced by Sarah McLachlan. A gutsy move, but Viccaji manages to pull it off — perhaps because she really is, or at least can be, that earnest.
She brings out bandmate Omar Akhtar for another soulful original. The girl next to me, seated on the floor, clasps her hands around her knees and sways softly to the guitar almost as if in a trance.
The third tune, recently composed, reveals how much Viccaji’s song writing skills have matured over the years. Out comes the rest of the band — Rahail Siddiqui on bass, Giles Goveas on drums — and Akhtar asks the crowd to squish in, since fans have begun to bleed into the foyer. Viccaji launches into a catchy, sophisticated, jazzy number about lying awake at 3 am, trying to figure out her next big move. It is a particularly upbeat take on the quarterlife quandary, set against a theatrical backdrop and hinting at what is to be the band’s strength throughout the night — that it can move from jazz to Bollywood, to gospel revival, to an essentially punk cover of “Proud Mary” with absolute finesse.
Viccaji’s voice grows stronger as she settles into the show. Her stage background — she’s held roles in Mamma Mia! and Chicago, among others — is on full display, in the tight, nearly choreographed way she holds her body and the professional efficiency of her repertoire. The band saves the performance from descending into camp. The bass player strums distractedly, too cool to care, like the best bass players always are, while the drummer takes his skill capriciously, a matter-of-fact. Akhtar’s rocker-boy stances inject the entire affair with a hint of debauchery.
There are times when Viccaji forgets herself, bouncing around, hair splaying, during the instrumental intros of songs. These are her rock ’n roll moments. But largely, Viccaji is a performer, not a Riot grrrl.
Standouts are “ABC/123,” which gets a lazy crowd to its feet at last. There is Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” which morphs into a sultry rendition of “Fever.” And there is a gorgeous cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Caramel,” replete with analogue effects — Viccaji cups the mic, so that her voice comes through a seductive tunnel, muffled at points, and at others, exceptionally clear, like late-night radio on a cross-country drive. Her new hit, the Levis-sponsored remake of Strings’s “Bichra Yaar,” is a definite crowd pleaser. Everyone sings along, surprisingly on-key.
She ends with Joplin’s “Summertime” in a flawless finale. It opens low and sexy, with twangy, wrenched chords and saturated vocals. Alternately soothing, seething and growling, it explodes into a full-on electric sideshow before returning to a pseudo-intimate, whispery farewell-”the living is easy…” It shows off the full range of Viccaji’s considerable power and the band’s technical prowess.
As the final notes fade, a grinning teenager bounds to the stage, alongside half of the not-quite-satiated crowd-having heard Viccaji, they apparently need to touch her. Amna Pathan, 14, is obviously thrilled with what she’s just experienced. Swiping slippery hair from her cheeks, she says, “Zoe’s a family friend, but mostly I’ve only seen her sing on YouTube and Facebook or at small gigs. But I had so much fun tonight, the dancing, people getting into it. The last song was awesome,” she chirps.
Habib Paracha, a 32-year-old businessman, is only slightly more reserved. “I’d never seen her perform, but I liked what I saw. She chose good covers, and that Strings song, I love. Did you notice, the entire room got all excited when that one came up?”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 12th, 2011.