Highlights from 2021, a year that was, for the city of Philly.
Save for 550 plus murders, a pandemic that barely slowed before accelerating, everything Ben Simmons and the local politics surrounding all three, how weird, or off, was 2021 in Philly, really?
Here are some things that went on during the last 364 days that spring to mind as good, bad, ugly and beautiful – a portrait of lights and darks of who and what Philly was in 2021.
Happy 25th Birthday Philadelphia Fringe Festival
Thinking back to the mad, manic 90s when the Fringe started as an Old City event where you ran from gallery to theater and street corner for various performance art showcases – even wilder if it was a First Friday and every art dealer was serving free wine, at a time when this historic area was just building as a bar and restaurant center – was at the heart of the PFF’s 25th anniversary. That’s why having Nick Stuccio and company produce some 200 plus events/submissions felt so good. It felt as frantic and exciting as the Fringe’s start.
The Return of Stephen Starr
Talking about that 90s culinary renaissance, Starr was its fire starter and a man you could count on to open new spaces at an annual clip (sometimes more than once a year). So while Starr made accommodations to re-jigger some of his older locations while turning others into ghost kitchens for pandemic take-out cuisine, he managed to produce his first new space and fresh cuisine dive (Baja Mexicali) with LMNO in Fishtown. Along with a unique dining experience (thanks to Chef Javier Plascencia) and zesty cocktails that are as spicy as the cuisine, the sprawling indoor-outdoor LMNO holds a custom made live-fire grill, an art gallery, a tiny stage for live music and a library/book store if you get bored.
Everything Jazmine Sullivan
The War on Drugs and Full Bush had their differently toned rock-out anthems. PnB Rock, Lil Uzi Vert and Tierra Whack found the mirthful magical – even innovative – caramel center at the heart of their particular brands of R&B and hip hop. But Jazmine Sullivan fused all of the above with power, emotion and poignancy on “Heaux Tales” that few vocalist and songwriters could manage.
Doobies and the Raven Lounge forever had board games to go with its brews, so the idea isn’t new or novel. Fairmount’s Thirsty Dice Café, however, was a welcome addition to the board café parade, one that just happened to maintain a family-friendly ooey-gooey center, and keep everyone connected. And honestly, nothing was more important than connection at a time when no one could get near your neighbor.
It’s Always Sunny When It Comes to Philly TV
The Delco-based “Mare of Easttown” was riveting in its final episodes. M Night Shyamalan’s “Servant” too, though to a lesser degree. What held its consistency after being away for a minute was local Rob McElhenney still mad, still somehow weirder, FX/FXX comedy series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”. Even ruder and less PC than Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, it’s a wonder that Sunny is still on sometimes.
Kudos too to writer and director Ricky Staub and the filmmaking crew behind Netflix ‘s “Concrete Cowboy” starring Idris Elba. Having grown up in Southwest Philadelphia with African American horse riders and hay-filled stables right next to the Black Bikers of Wheels of Soul, I totally get Staub’s loving look at a dying breed that refuses to quit: the Fletcher Street Riders of North Philly who appear rough and ruggedly next to Elba.