Friday night at Drom, intense crooner Mehmet Erdem led his four-piece band through an epic, towering, majestic set of elegant, darkly crescendoing Turkish art-rock. Wearing a wireless headset, he and the sound guy had an animated dialogue going during the first few numbers of a concert that went on for well over two hours into Saturday morning. Which makes sense – although Erdem is a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays several Turkish lutes, his first gig as a professional was not as a musician but as a sound engineer. After a few tweaks, he was content: Drom is one of New York’s most sonically pristine venues.
That calm, meticulous approach extended to his vocals as well. In a powerful, resonant baritone, he stood resolute and mostly motionless in the center of the stage, intoning a long series of brooding, slowly crescendoing ballads in his native vernacular. You could call him the Turkish Leonard Cohen – although Erdem has a lot more range beyond Cohen’s foggy low register.
As is often the case with Turkish rock, Erdem’s lyrics are enigmatic and allusive, with the occasional mythological reference. What appear to be brooding lost-love laments on the surface may have political overtones, thinly veiled nostalgia for freedom and basic human rights. As the night wore on, the crowd sang along: even for non-Turkish speakers, it was easy to get a sense of meaning from Erdem’s articulation and forcefulness, and from the audience as well. The ladies sang along lustily on the night’s most carefree ballad; other times, phones were raised defiantly. Let’s hope some of this footage makes it to youtube.
The band were fantastic. Interestingly, for all his fretboard talent, Erdem only played oud, and only on a handful of songs midway through the show. And he never cut loose, negotiating a couple of serpentine intros with a brooding terseness, choosing his spots and slowly building suspense. His acoustic guitarist added incisive melody that occasionally shifted toward flamenco or the Middle East, especially when the music’s minor modes grew darkest (Turkish rock can be gothic AF, an effect that really kicked in when he switched to keyboards on the night’s most majestic numbers). Meanwhile, the rhythm section lurked in the background, occasionally rising when the tempos picked up.
But the star of the show was the clarinetist. In the Balkans and eastward, clarinet is often the lead instrument, and this band’s lead guy is killer. Opening with a dazzling, microtonal flourish was a red herring, considering that he matched the bandleader’s moody resonance most of the way through. As the set picked up steam, he opened a couple of numbers with all-too-brief taqsims, parsing every haunting tonality he could get out of his reed.
By about one in the morning, Erdem had methodically worked up to a peak, through grooves that a couple of times snuck their way from cumbia to straight-up stadium rock, with a couple of lively detours into funk and even roots reggae. From there, the group hit the hardest, with a series of singalong anthems. They brought it down somewhat at the end, closing on a somewhat disquieting, unresolved note. At that point, there was no need for an encore.
Drom is one of only a handful of clubs in the US, and the only one in New York which regularly features Turkish rock. Extraordinary chanteuse Sertab Erener – whose music is somewhat quieter but just as lavish – is there on May 25 at 7 PM.