The Mercury News
After tragic year, D’Agostino happily returns to stage
Bay Area acoustic guitarist helping Freight & Salvage return to its live shows
Like many performing artists, guitarist Peppino D’Agostino experienced the pandemic as a devouring tsunami that swept away his entire livelihood, clearing his calendar of gigs, workshops and recording sessions. But COVID-19 hit even closer to home, taking his mother’s life while preventing him from traveling back to Italy for the funeral.
“It’s been very difficult,” he said quietly, noting that the travails make the halting return to normalcy that much more precious. In the first concert at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage with an audience in more than 18 months, D’Agostino joins forces with guitarist-composer Gyan Riley for a series of solo numbers and duets.
While the venue is running at half-capacity throughout August and proof of vaccination is required, D’Agostino recognizes the primal “need for human connection,” he said. “There’s nothing comparable to seeing a live show, and as a performer being fed by their enthusiasm.”
He and Riley first connected about 15 years ago on a European tour as part of the World Guitar Ensemble, an eight-piece guitar orchestra featuring seven classical guitarists “and me playing steel string and guitar synth,” D’Agostino said. “I’m self-taught so it was quite challenging.”
D’Agostino has honed a folky, ebullient Mediterranean sound that blends bright harmonies with quicksilver lyricism. Riley draws on traditions from North India and West Africa jazz and classical in crafting his sui generis tunes. Their strong musical personalities and divergent approaches to the instrument are part of what makes them such effective touring partners.
They each play brief solo sets with four or five original pieces and then come together as a duo
playing each other’s compositions, including a piece that Riley recently wrote especially for the tour.
“We do come from different worlds musically,” Riley said. “I wanted to find that common language. Peppino has some history in folk and bluegrass fingerpicking. It’s not something I’ve done much of but I wrote a piece inspired by string band music called ‘Sockdolager,’ which is actually a word.”
Before the tour took shape, they started talking about doing a livestreamed performance during the depths of the pandemic. With the future so uncertain, any opportunities to connect with an audience were welcome. Before the pandemic, D’Agostino had a thriving business with his website Music World Retreats, where he teaches workshops with a roster of illustrious string players.
“But teaching solo is a different story,” he said. “I started slowly and built up to about 12 students a week. I had to learn about Zoom. I’m pretty low tech. I learned how to do livestreams, how to get good sound.”
Riley had a year of touring set up in 2020, and he eventually found other avenues for his music. “After the initial depression and lethargy, I decided it was better to channel that into making records and making new music,” he said.
He recorded and released the album “Shelter in Space” with his bandmates working remotely by passing music files back and forth, and followed up with the aptly titled “Silver Lining,” a gorgeous solo guitar album on John Zorn’s Tzadik Records label. It’s a disparate collection of pieces dedicated to his musical mentors, including Zorn, Dusan Bogdanovic, David Tanenbaum, and his father, legendary composer Terry Riley.
In turning the hardships of the pandemic into opportunities for creative growth Riley created a neat bookend to his 2011 debut album “Stream of Gratitude,” which was also released on Tzadik.
“I realized there were all these pieces I was writing that didn’t fit stylistically or space-wise on ‘Shelter in Space,’ ” he said. “I was moving around a little bit toward the end of 2020 so I took my mobile recording gear for whenever I found a quiet, inspiring place.”
The growing uncertainty regarding the efficacy of vaccinations in the face of the delta variant throws a shadow over what just weeks ago seemed like an unalloyed celebration. The Freight is taking things slowly, said artistic director Peter Williams, who recently moved back to the East Bay after selling his house in Oakland last year when he left Freight & Salvage to run a theater in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
“All of the August shows are half-capacity,” he said. “We’re only doing 12 events and three of them are film screenings. We have to get our sea legs back.”
With pandemic policies evolving in response to new information, there’s only one certainty when it comes to concerts. Music can provide a sense of pleasure and communion that’s a timeless balm in deeply troubled times.
“I’m 64 and playing music for people brings me to when I was 10 years old,” D’Agostino said, “back to an age without worries, just joy. That’s what music does for me.”