Back in October 2001, Mike Skinner, aka The Streets, cracked the charts and revolutionised UK garage and hip hop with his homemade, debut release "Has It Come to This?". Rather than fantasising about a gangster lifestyle in a fake American accent, the Brummie lad chose to rap about the loves and lives of average British kids - or, in Skinner slang, everyday geezers.
It didn't matter that the underground garage scene rejected him for pandering to the middle classes with his poetic, Little Britain-esque tales, because eminent musicians such as David Bowie hailed him as a genius, and Chris Martin, the front man of Coldplay, invited him into the studio (sadly, the results aren't previewed tonight). Inevitably, his debut album, Original Pirate Material, was nomin-ated for Brit awards, and although Ms Dynamite beat him to the Mercury prize, the record went double platinum.
Tonight, a chubbier Skinner returns to the fray in purposely down-to-earth gear - baggy black tracksuit bottoms, white Lacoste polo shirt and box-fresh Nike trainers. The question is: can he cut it now that the cash and getting-a-girl problems that fuelled his debut album have eased off? And while he has been wooing America, has his British following been won over by the more authentically street Dizzee Rascal, who scooped the Mercury last year by taking garage to new pastures?
Last time Skinner played live in the UK, he stage-dived into the crowd at the Homelands festival. He is less active tonight but happily chats away over a bottle of brandy, some fags and several cans of beer. The Streets' original singer, Kevin Trail, has left, on a solo deal with EMI. As even Skinner's dad maintains that his son can't sing, Trail has been replaced by Leo Ihenacho, a man so energetically slick and soulful, he makes our hero look decidedly sloppy. Also missing are the short films that brought suitably urban landscapes - tower blocks; children doing wheelies on stolen scooters - to The Streets' stage.
Of five new tracks that The Streets airs, the punchy next single, "Fit but You Know It", is an instant success. Welcoming a guitarist on stage, Skinner jokes that he is taking a rock direction. The lines: "Leave it/ I think you are really fit," are so catchy that the crowd sings along as if to his last hit, "Don't Mug Yourself".
But someone has turned the bass up too loud, and the surely humorous "Could Well Be In" and "Blinded by the Light", hindered by the muddy sound, have difficulty holding their own against spiced-up versions of the Top 20 singles "Let's Push Things Forward" and a calypso-tinged rendition of "Has It Come to This?".
Two encore songs are more promising - the brass-band-sampling "It Was Supposed to Be So Easy" and the soon-to-be-stadium-sized ballad "Dry Your Eyes". Although Skinner checks his phone beforehand, it's a romantic track with soaring strings and (gasp!) acoustic guitar. The word on The Streets, then, as "Weak Become Heroes" fades and the Astoria stops jumping, is that success has made him more adventurous musically but he still worries about pulling the ladies.