First Night: The Streets, Apollo, Manchester

Still the people's pop star despite fame, wealth and adulation
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The Independent Culture

When I saw The Streets' Mike Skinner start a UK tour at this venue two years ago, the atmosphere of near-hooligan excess and excitement proved he was still a people's pop star. But dozens more such unhinged shows, and the tabloid luring success of "Dry Your Eyes", now find Skinner in a very different world from his fans, and the wry kebab-shop realism that made his name.

His new, third album, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living, instead reports back from the dark side of celebrity, and Skinner's chemical-fuelled nervous breakdown there. As this is just the place reality television suggests most Britons want to visit, that doesn't necessarily make him out of touch.

His transformation in cultural status from Eminem's provincial cousin to the Arctic Monkeys' semantic godfather also means he is a far from spent force. But his songs about success remain his least imaginative yet. What he and his audience, once so united in careless excitement, have left to offer each other is what may be decided tonight.

The urgent chants of "Skinner!" half an hour before he appears tells you his crowd are still loyal. And when he arrives, in Eighties Miami Vice casual wear that parodies the luxury gap he's now on the far side of, he's welcomed like a friend.

"Prangin' Out" outlines his recent debauchery. A cheeky stab at the Arctic Monkeys' "I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor" during "Don't Mug Yourself" then lays knowing claim to musical movements during his absence. The Specials' ska brass overture of "Let's Push Things Forward", and R&B romantic earnestness of "All Goes Out The Window" then define The Streets' own musical melting pot. With a live band, and Skinner's soul-powered vocal foil Leo the Lion, The Streets' early days in the underground garage ghetto seem a long lifetime away. The alcoholic regret of "Too Much Brandy" is then paired with the new "When You Wasn't Famous", and its inter-celebrity drunken tryst. "Which member of S-Club 7?" the singer teasingly asks the crowd of this interlude.

"Never Went To Church", the tribute to his recently dead father, then fetches up on emotionally firmer ground.

The wider social realities The Streets once addressed are, though, off the agenda now, even when early songs like the rave-tinged "Turn The Page" draw big, fond cheers. Leo's singing, skilled as it is, also lets Skinner delegate his frontman responsibilities. Perhaps as a result, it's the fine but soppy ballad "Dry Your Eyes" that gets the most universal, arm-waving cheer.

The rowdier sex-war report "Fit But You Know It" provides a more fitting climax. The neon Union Jacks that background a grungy "Land Of Hope And Glory" meanwhile remind you how little music like this Britain had previously. Looking a little better on the dance floor, though, should be a priority. Otherwise, the sofa may soon be The Streets' natural home.

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