“Seattle is the place where things started for me,” announced Turkish singer/percussionist Gaye Su Akyol after she and her fantastic band finished the second song of an exhilarating two-hour-plus set at Nectar Lounge last night. Born in 1985, she cited being inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana when she was 8 years old. Even if this admission smacked a bit of pandering to the locals, it was charming. Adding to the Seattle connection, the magnetic diva released a 7” single with Sub Pop this year whose A-side is a cover of Shocking Blue's “Love Buzz,” which Nirvana also cut for their 1988 debut single. In addition, the Glitterbeat label, run by former Seattle musician Chris Eckman, has released Akyol's last three albums. GSA and crew also recorded an in-studio session for KEXP with Wo'Pop host Darek Mazzone; it airs September 26.
At times, it felt as if I, a non-Turk, were eavesdropping on a private ceremony for Turkish nationals, and this sense of being an outsider just added another frisson to GSA's live Seattle debut. One felt privileged to witness such a communal sense of joy in that Middle Eastern nation's musical history and present, as this is a culture that doesn't get a ton of representation in Seattle. A similar scenario played out when the Turkish-Dutch group Altın Gün performed at the Crocodile in 2019. The room seemed to consist of 80% Turks, and they enthusiastically sang along with every song. No matter your ethnicity, though, you couldn't help getting swept away by the celebratory vibe.
And that leads to another point about modern Turkish musicians—at least the ones who make a splash in the US: many seem inclined to preserve and revive the revered songs of their predecessors. And why not? Anatolian folk and rock songs by legends such as Erkin Koray, Ersen, Selda Bağcan, and Barış Manço (to name only a handful) remain some of the most exciting documents in music history. Resurrecting them for modern audiences is philanthropy in action. And when you have players as abundantly talented as Akyol's band (guitarist Ali Güçlü Şimşek, bassist/keyboardist Görkem Karabudak, drummer Berke Özcan), songs from 40 to 50 years ago, which most Americans have not heard, sound as vital and intriguing as hell.
GSA's group used traditional rock instruments, plus Nord Stage keyboard, yet they didn't sound much like standard-issue Anglo-American rock. (Hallelujah!) Rather, they imbued their songs with those distinctive Turkish tonalities and melodic grandeur that just hit deeper in the soul. Şimşek's many guitar solos especially captured that serpentine, warped quality that Koray pioneered; it's like that hollowed-out, surf-rock timbre, but as heard in a cave and with the addition of a spice whose name you can't pronounce. (GSA honored the late superstar with a brilliant rendition of his classic, “Estarabim.”) When you add Akyol's supple vocal melismas to the mix, you get music that transports you out of the mundane.
Akyol is a wonderfully expressive singer who wrings maximal emotion without histrionics. She'd often hold the mic out to the crowd for sing-alongs. Now, I'm generally not a big ballads fan, but GSA's have a lot of interesting twists and power surges. Before the 16th song of the night, Akyol described the track as “erotic—I mean, they all are, but this one especially so.” And this was no idle boast. You could also hear them working their libidinal magic on the aforementioned “Love Buzz,” which magnified the Shocking Blue original's sexiness.
The show's 17th song was a scorching, slashing hip-swiveler, and it seemed like an ideal way to end the night. But no. After a quick exit for the drummer to urinate, GSA returned for four more songs. The penultimate one started like Love's beautifully mellow “Emotions,” with Karabudak simultaneously playing bass and keyboards while Şimşek peeled off a solo of exceptional pointillistic prettiness. By the shattering climax, though, it was like Jefferson Airplane's “White Rabbit” on speed.
One got the sense that Akyol and co. devoted more passion and time to their Seattle crowd than they did elsewhere, as this was the final show on their 15-date tour. (Shout out to NYC promoter Serdar Ilhan for making it happen.) While the concert had special meaning for those with roots in Türkiye, its spirit, virtuosity, and surplus of poignant songs surely left everyone in the house moved to their core.
(On a side note, the Nectar's smoke machine [which is ironically positioned near a NO SMOKING sign] should be permanently retired, according to an informal survey I conducted... and my own damned nose.)