Bryan Dilworth, 51, a music promoter who helped shape and support the Philadelphia music scene by booking local and national bands in venues large and small over the course of three decades, died at his home on Sunday night.
His wife, Kristin Thomson, said the cause of his death was a pulmonary embolism.
The city’s music community went into mourning as word spread of the sudden passing of a man who began booking shows at Old City clubs like the Khyber Pass Pub and Upstairs at Nick’s in the early 1990s. He was co-owner of Bonfire, an independent Philadelphia concert company, as well as a vice president of the Philadelphia office of national promoter AEG Presents at the time of his death.
“I’m flattened by the news,” said Jon Hampton, who as vice president of Live Nation Philadelphia battled with Dilworth and AEG for acts, but who was also his former partner in the close-knit world that is the Philadelphia music business.
“Bryan was a keystone in the city,” Hampton said. “He connected so many people together in the music scene and beyond. It’s hard to imagine a Philadelphia without him. He was a true friend, and if you were Bryan’s friend, you know exactly what that means. ... If you needed help, if you were in a tough spot — he would be there for you, no matter what. ... He was the kind of old-school promoter who would have bands sleep at his house. He had a big heart, and he had principles. And he was possibly the funniest person I ever met.”
It would be hard — nearly impossible, in fact — to list all the Philadelphia venues that Dilworth booked during his career, from the Theatre of Living Arts and the Tower Theater to the Mann Music Center and the Electric Factory (now the Franklin Music Hall), from Underground Arts and the Trocadero to the Wells Fargo Center.
“Bryan is irreplaceable,” said Larry Magid, the Electric Factory Concerts founder who’s a legend in the industry. “He’s not replaceable as promoter, or for music in Philadelphia. He was special. You won’t find anyone else like him.”
Magid said that when he first worked with Dilworth in the 1990s, he saw him as someone he could mentor in the ways of the music business. “And then, after a while, you realize that he’s mentoring you," Magid said. "He’s teaching you things. If I was to start a company, he would be the first person I would hire.”
Friends praised Dilworth as a good family man and father to his 17-year-old son, Riley. His wife said on Tuesday that, like many music business people, she and Dilworth met over the phone, when he booked one of the bands on the label she co-owned, Simple Machines records. “He was charming on the phone,” she recalled. “Bryan was a real phone person.”
They met in person in 1992 when her band, Tsunami, played J.C. Dobbs, the South Street club Dilworth was booking at the time. “He walked up the stairs, and I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I’m totally in love with him.’”
Dilworth “cared very deeply about what he worked on,” Thomson said. “Whether it was booking shows, or being in a marriage. He was very loyal, and honest, and in an industry that’s super cutthroat, he very generous with his time and what he knew. It wasn’t, ‘Hey, I could really make it big with this artist.’ It was, ‘I see something here, and these folks seem like they’re good folks, and I want to help them.’”
Craig Finn, singer with the Brooklyn band the Hold Steady, was booked by Dilworth many times over the years. “Bryan was a big guy, and he had a larger-than-life presence,” he said. “We both loved baseball.” Many Philly musicians recalled that conversations with Dilworth were as likely to be about the Phillies as music, or food, another Dilworth passion.
Finn said bands like his would keep coming back to work with Dilworth not only because he was astute at business, but also “because you knew he would help you, any way he could. Relationships matter.”
Giving artists a fair shake was a Dilworth trademark. On Facebook on Tuesday, Steve Butler of the band Smash Palace wrote: “He was an exception to the rule when it came to booking agents and promoters. He booked Smash Palace as an opener at the TLA. When I went to get paid at the end of the night, he doubled my pay. I was a bit surprised and asked him why he gave me extra, and he replied, ‘Because you deserve it!’ "
Philly guitarist Mike Brenner, who played shows for Dilworth in many bands, said, “I would do anything he asked, really, because he was so generous with the local scene. He would add a local act onto a prime gig — not because they represented more potential money at the gate, but because he thought it would make for a cooler show. I especially remember his work on the Last Waltz benefit at the Troc. It was a great night all-around, but it was Bryan, using his connections, who delivered Garth Hudson to that gig, and Hudson’s presence made the night that much more special.”
In his 2011 book Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness and the Country in Between, author Jeff Sharlet dedicated a chapter to Dilworth. He quoted the rock promoter talking about the thrill he still got from finding a young band, and sensing how much they had to offer.
“There’s that feeling in your spine, and it’s alright,” Dilworth said. “When the arc is just starting to arc. And you’re saying, ‘This could be Van Halen, this could be Neil Young.’ It’s like you’re bearing witness. It’s not ‘Ching-ching, here we go.' It’s ‘I saw it. It does exist.’ ”