The debut album by Mike Skinner, a.k.a. The Streets, (Original Pirate Material) was a touching, thoughtful ode to all the aspects of modern Britain its media commentators don't comprehend: the boredom, tension and psychic wear of council estate life and weekend wildness. Bought by many as a cheap passport to this real British mainstream, Skinner's unlooked-for status as a Barratt Home laureate hasn't lasted, as newer contenders like Dizzee Rascal have blasted past. But the new Streets album, A Grand Don't Come For Free does suggests that Skinner is a long-term, canny contender.
Not even trying to top his debut, it sidesteps grand expectations to chart the realistic rise and fall of a relationship, in a garage-style Play For Today. Summing up his times like a latter-day Ray Davies, Skinner ends the album relying only on himself. The queue for the start of his UK return snakes round the block nearly three hours before showtime, and any idea that Skinner's constituency is now confined to the chattering classes is shattered the moment he ambles into sight. In the upstairs seats, whole rows run into the aisles and punch the air, as Original Pirate Material favourites "Turn The Page" and "Let's Push Things Forward" fill the room. The latter song's Specials-style brass and crowd-bonding lyrics - "This ain't a track, it's a movement" - stoke the roaring and celebratory mood. "Oi! Oi!" is a favoured cry, from Skinner and the crowd. "This feels like a football match," he decides. "You ain't the opposition, are ya ?"
For this live version of The Streets, Skinner has surrounded himself with an expert band, and a co-rapper who daringly takes both male and female roles. But it is Skinner, slouching, goading, free-forming, charismatic and yet casually on a level with everyone here, who rules the stage. How much of his pill-popping, shoulder-rolling, leery persona is an act is open to question. But this Manchester crowd, stuffed with people who fit that bill without needing to try, treat him as one of their own without reservation. They chant "Skin-ner !" like he's just scored a hat-trick, while a warm fug of sweat fills the air, the atmosphere mid-way between match day and club night. With unfamiliar new songs slipped in sparingly, the first album's "Geezers Need Excitement" and "Has It Come To This ?" give the set an anthemic core. The former song is stripped by the unrelentingly aggressive euphoric mood.
The Streets have set into an expression of pure testosterone release, shared equally by cheering girls. Its questioning social commentary is left for another day. The romantic tragicomedy of a new track like "Could Well Be In" has little place tonight, either. Only future single "Dry Your Eyes", Skinner's requiem to a doomed relationship, effectively suggests his sensitive side.
Perhaps when respectability or pretentiousness really set in, he will perform A Grand Don't Come For Free as a moving song-cycle at the Albert Hall. For now, this triumphant, communal return will have to do.
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