Saturday night at Drom, Turkish crooner Halil Sezai eventually got the crowd singing along. But he didn’t do it with flag-waving Eurovision-style stadium cliches. He did it with a carefully crafted set of allusive, slow-to-midtempo ballads about revolution and the relentless stress of life in a police state, in styles ranging from moody parlor pop, to methodically crescenddoing anthems awash in minor keys, with microtonally-infused fills and solos delivered by his absolutely brilliant clarinetist. To call this music for our time is an understatement to the extreme.
Sezai sat for the duration of the show, which made sense considering that he doesn’t overemote. Although he’d build to long, resonant phrases to cap off a chorus, he sang with remarkable restraint, always seemingly holding something in reserve. Although he doesn’t have a particularly low voice, he didn’t fly up the scale, remaining grounded in his upper midrange.
Likewise, his band had a nuance matched by few rock bands. Turkish rock tends to be more informed by classical and Turkish traditional music – or in its loudest moments, European metal – than it is by comparatively simple American pop. About three songs into the set, all of a sudden a tersely swaying drumbeat entered the picture. As it turned out, the drummer had been there all along, but up to that point he’d just been adding just the ghostliest flickers of a cymbal or a rimshot.
An acoustic rhythm guitarist held a steady, emphatic forward drive while the group’s superb, eclectic pianist ranged from stately, angst-fueled neoromantic lines to a few detours toward early 80s jazz when the clarinetist switched to alto sax. The bassist would often open a song with judiciously fingerpicked acoustic guitar leads, then in a flash would put down the guitar and then hold down the lows on his four strings. The clarinetist’s volleys of tremoloing, deep-woods mystery and sometimes the macabre contrasted with the low-key sonics behind him. Botanica, and Firewater, and maybe Procol Harum came to mind, but with less emotive vocals than any of those art-rock bands.
Besides being New York’s most welcomingly intimate venue for sounds from around the globe, Drom is one of the few American clubs to regularly book Turkish rock music. There are two fantastic, very different bands there tomorrow night, Sept 30: at at 8 PM, wild accordion-driven Chilean psychedelic band Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna are the latest stars from outside the country to make their US debut here: $15 adv tix are highly recommended. Then at 11:30 PM there’s a free show by excellent Queens rebetiko band Rebet Asker, playing dark Greek gangster and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s through the 40s.