Three senior Fishtown residents give music criticism a new, fresh face.
Last Friday morning at 8:30 at Sulimay’s Restaurant–a long-standing, forever-unchanged greasy spoon in the heart of Fishtown—three old folks and a television crew have taken over the back booth. Surrounded by two bright lights and two cameras, each is strapped with a tiny microphone on their shirts, and earbuds in their ears.
A couple tables away a large, hirsute man sits behind a laptop.
“Okay. Here it comes,” he says to the three, clicking “Play” and blasting them with new songs by Iggy Pop, Isis, Yo La Tengo and several others.
Welcome to Breakfast at Sulimay’s, the increasingly popular web series that has taken a simple, straightforward idea—playing contemporary music for people naturally averse to contemporary music—to much comic and adorable effect. On this Friday the Sulimay’s crew is filming episodes 24 through 27, and before they’re done they’ll have listened to eight new, cutting-edge acts, most of them going over as well as that time you played Minor Threat for your mom.
Of course, that’s the point.
The man behind the laptop, behind Breakfast at Sulimay’s and behind a budding Internet television network called Scrapple.tv is Marc Brodzik, a 42-year-old beast of a man (think lumberjack-on-meth/teddy-bear hybrid) who has more passion for what he does in the tip of his 6-inch goatee than you have in your entire being. And he just received a Pew Fellowship in the Arts for media arts to prove it.
Brodzik eats at Sulimay’s often, and was intrigued by a group of old men who talked from booth to booth about the news of the day and the Phillies while munching on toast and sucking down coffee. “I thought it would be funny to have them review new music, and bring this very innocent, outsider perspective to it,” he says.
That he ended up with three gems with starkly different personalities and perspectives is a happy accident. “If it was just three grumpy old men it wouldn’t be as fun or as nuanced,” he says.
The players: Bill Abel, 75, a hip-hop hating bar owner who approaches most of the music with a heavy emphasis on “I don’t get it, and I don’t care to”; Ann Bailey, 66, an irascible, spunky woman who doesn’t mind working blue and is told frequently by commenters she “talks too much” on YouTube and “the blogs,” which she uses as a dismissive catchall and says with a tinge of disgust when describing all websites; and Joe Walker, 84, a former Shakespearean actor and Breakfast at Sulimay’s’ breakout star, with a mucus-lined, gravelly voice and a memory like an elephant who’s just eaten a wily patch of ginkgo biloba.
Walker is Breakfast at Sulimay’s’ Simon Cowell, which isn’t to say he’s mean. On the contrary, he’s often the cast member who’s least likely to say something cutting—often opting for “I didn’t care for it” or “I found it unimpressive” where Bailey might use “It fuckin’ sucked.” He’s Cowell in the sense that, of the three, he’s the one you’re most anxious to hear from.
And it’s not his opinion so much as it is his face. Like Cowell’s, it cannot tell a lie. Once Brodzik presses play, Walker’s face is stricken with deep, eyes-closed concentration that can say more about the new Animal Collective in a five- second close-up than a 1,500-word Pitchfork review written in earnest could ever hope to.
“Music today has too much rhythm,” Walker tells me after the shoot, repeating a refrain he uses frequently in many a Sulimay’s episode. “Rhythm drives popular music today. There’s not much use for melody in current music. They put the drums up front. They’ve got their priorities backward.”
First priority to Walker, Bailey and Able (and, more than likely, your grandparents) is lyrics, and all three bemoan contemporary music’s lack of what they consider good ones worth singing along to.
“You can’t understand half of them,” says Bailey, indignant (always indignant).
In the last few weeks, Sulimay’s has been picking up steam. Stereogum embedded the vid of the trio reviewing Dan Deacon and Bon Iver, and it quickly inched to the top of its “Most Popular” and “Most Commented” posts. Sasha Frere-Jones, The New Yorker ’s popular music critic, has written about the show. So too has Dallas, Texas’, popular Polaroid blog gorillavsbear.net, where Bailey, Able and Walker’s reviews of Animal Collective and Young Jeezy inspired 37 comments, including “Old people are nature’s comedians.” Phoenix New Times, Nashville Scene , indie-kingmaker Pitchfork, Vibe magazine and countless smaller blogs living in the shadows of their bigger brothers have all posted and reposted the viral vids.
And it’s only up from here. Bailey, Able and Walker are being interviewed Friday on Canadian public radio, and Brodzik is in talks with some national news shows to profile Sulimay’s .
There’s something to be said about music criticism in the age of Internet convergence here: What does it mean to criticize music when everyone has an opinion about it? What’s its purpose?