Music has a powerful effect on people. Deep and sometimes stoned listeners will often associate their favorite musicians as having tapped a spiritual well from which we all draw. This is what gives them the ability to touch our spirits in profound and often uplifting ways. Hell, if you’ve been to a Phish concert you’ve probably heard someone describe Trey Anistaso as an alien. However, it’s not often that we get actually have a personal connection with these musicians.
Dante Bucci had a profound impact on the 53rd annual Philadelphia Folk Festival. Sadly, he wasn’t there to see it. The 33-year-old festival mainstay was found dead from an apparent accident in Roxborough home Wednesday, Aug. 13 as he was preparing to perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
I first heard the news from a biker smoking a cigarette in the Spring Mountain parking lot on Friday afternoon. Word spread quickly as campers were setting up for the weekend on Thursday. Friday afternoon A Fistful of Sugar dedicated a song to Bucci’s memory. Festival Emcee Gene Shay announced the news to the crowd and played a video of the artist’s 2012 main stage performance on Friday evening.
The Philadelphia-area native was easy to spot each year at the festival with a bandana covering the top of his long dark hair. I typically found him in the merchandise tent playing his signature instrument, the HandPan, also known as a Hang Drum. If you didn’t hear him play it, it looked like the man was carrying a dented steel bowl. That is, if you got a chance to see him.
The beautiful sounds Bucci made by slapping his palms and fingers against metal could only be heard above and between a gathered crowd. His willingness to smile, talk and give the impromptu lesson made a lasting impression upon anyone he touched.
When I saw Bucci play in the merchandise tent or in the campground over the previous six folk festivals, there was a man who was his Hang Brother. Whether he was playing the hammered dulcimer or sitting alongside Bucci playing the HandPan, his kind eyes looked out behind his glasses and a graying beard surrounded his smile. The same man was sitting in the same spot, except he wasn’t smiling and a picture of Bucci sat on the chair beside him.
“This is my 41st year. I missed one in 2001,” said Dr. J. Terry McGrath of West Chester. “I brought Dante here in 2004 to play with me.”
He said a chance meeting the following year on the street rekindled their shared love of the HandPan with an instrument ordered through Ron Kravitz. “In November (2005) I told him, ‘I have a drum for you.'”
Through the following years, Bucci became more popular through performances around the Philadelphia area. Over the course of about a decade, Bucci performed at Redding Terminal, Rittenhouse Square and 30th Street Station.
“He was a virtuoso on the instrument,” McGrath said as his eyes began to well. “He would have been world renown. But, he was so shy. People thought he was aloof but he was just shy.”
His reputation at the Philadelphia Folk Festival stood for itself. McGrath remembered Bucci playing “Stairway to Heaven,” around the campsite campfire concert in 2008 and his performances with the Philadelphia Jug Band.
“He was always a draw,” McGrath said. “I always felt I had him as a friend and he thought of me as a father and we just got one another.”
The memory of Bucci’s 2012 performance on the folk festival main stage was one that brought a smile to McGrath’s face.
“The Hang was his voice. He played three at once – lead, rhythm and bass,” McGrath said. “I wish I had his hands.”
Bucci was also known for his giving spirit and was scheduled to perform at a fundraiser for Philadelphia Musicians On Call. He would frequently perform at local hospitals as a volunteer with the group. His family members are requesting memorial donations go to Philadelphia Musicians on Call.
WXPN 5K Run for Musicians On Call takes place 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 5 at Penn Park, 3100 Lower Walnut St., Philadelphia. Entry is $45. For information see xpn.org.