The Sheldon Concert Hall is best utilized by music that overwhelms. With a simple piano and guitar setup, Terry Riley and Gyan Riley, performing as the Rileys, made the room glow last night. The father and son duo's set was intimate, and not just because the audience barely spilled past five rows of seats. Through a mystic combination of genetics, experience, musicianship and telepathy, Terry and Gyan were about as in sync with each other as two humans can be.
See also: -Pioneering composer Terry Riley Gets spiritual with his son, Gyan -Los Lobos at the Sheldon Concert Hall, 2/26/12: Review and Setlist -The Sheldon 2012-13 Concert Season, including Magnetic Fields, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Rosanne Cash
When the group took the stage, a massive beard and tye-dyed hat reminded me that Terry Riley was a San Francisco resident in the 1960s. I was immediately surprised by Gyan's setup; the Rileys previously hinted at an acoustic performance, but the guitarist had myriad effect pedals at his feet and a tweed Fender amp angled at the ceiling. My wife, Megan, commented that it looked like his amplifier had spewed the pedals and they were marching to attack Terry's piano.
Forgiving an ill-timed stomp on a distortion pedal, the acoustic piano/electric guitar dynamic worked. Under Terry's fingers, the Sheldon's warm Steinway was on a cloud. Gyan alternately added to the airiness or broke through it with disruptive treble bursts. Most of the material was written by Papa Riley and showed an obvious Indian influence; his son appropriately summoned a sitar on his instrument with thoughtful bends that spoke the language well.
Approximately half of the songs featured Terry's voice, which sounds something like Cat Stevens doing an impression of Chong. In those moments, Terry usually took a hiatus from the piano to draw pictures in the air as he sang. Gyan was strongest as a pure accompanist, as he found creative ways to cover sonic ground in the piano's absence. Despite the footwork, the guitar tone was fairly straightforward. His pedals were not so much transformative as functional; his volume pedal and tuner saw the most action. There were downsides to the Rileys' familiarity with each other. Often, the two playing as one aesthetic resulted in monotones. The intrinsic element of danger within improvisation was slightly dulled; at times, I hoped for some form of disruption just to introduce a new element to the performance.
Still, seeing two masters of a craft so specific and intimidating as instrumental, mostly improvisational duets was moving. They just happen to be related, and one just happens to be among the most important living figures in music as a whole.
Personal Bias: My attendance was equal parts curiosity, support and pilgrimage rather than a love of Terry Riley as a pianist and/or singer. During the intermission, when I heard somebody whistling the first few notes to Terry's iconic "In C," I knew I was not alone.
Overheard: "He would love it! Going down the slides and jumping in the ball pit. He'd probably just want to go on the same slide over and over again," said by a guy behind us talking about taking Terry Riley to the City Museum. He later said, "I'm glad he never gave up on weird."