The Streets In New York

Driving down to New York City in the evening: a different experience than taking the bus in to Port Authority during the day
But the familiar New York lifestyle: one friend invites me to help him celebrate France’s unexpected win over Spain, another calls to flake out of joining me at The Streets show
I join the one friend to help him celebrate, talk the other into catching a second wind
End up bringing both to Webster Hall, where I’ve still got an ‘in’ thirteen years after giving up club promoting

It’s a while since I’ve just hung out in downtown New York of an early evening
Not just months, but years
Because when you live in New York, you’re always too busy to just kick back and be a tourist
But now I no longer live in New York City, so tonight I play tourist
At Toastie’s,
A deli on Union Square West, with tables out front.
That charges twice as much for a beer as any other deli, but that’s still only half as much as the poncy Coffee Shop bar next door
The view, of course, is the same
That of the streets
Which on a hot, humid, summer New York night
Are filled with beautiful people
Especially the women
Who move en masse into model mode when summer kicks in
But the women probably think the same about the men
Many of whom are wearing national colors in honor of a certain football tournament
New York is one of the greatest cities in which to follow the World Cup
A haven for immigrants from every nation
A place where people can wave their flags with pride
While still declaring themselves committed New Yorkers
There’s a bar for every game
And everyone can claim their roots – even the natural-born Americans
Though it’s amazing how many citizens suddenly declare themselves Brazilian
Then again New Yorkers (moving en masse into model mode for summer), instinctively know how to sport a fashion trend

Union Square itself is jammed, with hundreds of people doing nothing more than hanging out
When I first lived round these parts, all the parks were filled with junkies
Now they’re crammed with tourists
New York feels so damn safe that I leave my overnight bags and my laptop in my parked car
Do you remember the days when every resident had to put a sign in his car window that read:
“Nothing worth taking: everything stolen”
And would routinely suffer a broken window just for a junkie’s just-in-case?
I do, and though I miss that old sense of danger in the air
Now I’m older and wiser, and drive a car and own a laptop, I’m glad they’re behind us

I leave the Streets of New York behind to watch The Streets in New York
A long sold-out ticket at Webster Hall
No surprise at that: Mike Skinner’s cockney rhymes translate perfectly to Manhattan cool
And The Streets’ indie rock appeal ensures that Skinner is not consigned to Limey rapper status
I’d like to have seen fellow countrywoman Lady Sovereign open
Her ‘Ch-Ching’ single is a masterpiece: ongoing confirmation that the most innovative sounds always seems to come out of hip-hop
(Or that British mish-mash of hip-hop, garage and house, of which The Streets and Lady Sovereign represent)
But anyway, I didn’t drive down to town in time
And besides, one lady and her DJ
Doesn’t do it for me
Whereas The Streets, I recall from experience
Is a proper band (if your editor is American)/
Are a proper band (if your editor is British)
With a proper live show

The five-piece Streets with Leo on bass, Webster Hall, June 27

Which is just as well
Because the new album is a major step back
The Hardest Way To Earn An Easy Living
Is a typically clever title
An apt summary of the 24/7 focus needed to be a successful musicain
But as an artistic statement of such
Mike Skinner takes the easy way out
Offering a compilation of lyrical clichés that, worse of all, admit to being clichés but can’t be arsed to search for alternatives
Along with half-baked vocals that laugh at their own lack of melody
Hoping that this will excuse themselves for reviving rock’s most self-indulgent theme:
The pain of the pop star
And even a song that takes task with my favorite subject, our ‘Two Nations’ (divided by a common language)
Makes its initial point with the boring old “fags” joke
As if we’ve never heard that one before
While the beats and textures don’t move things forward from Original Pirate Material
Which is now all of four years old
And this is all the more disappointing given that 2004’s A Grand Don’t Come For Free
Not only avoided the usual Sophomore Slump
(What do you call a sophomore slump in a country that doesn’t have sophomores?)
But told a streetwise story that played like a movie
Yet also stood alone as three-minute vignettes
Whereas The Hardest Way To Earn An Easy Living
Sounds like merely the germination of a good album that was rushed to release
Before it could be properly thought through
Though, then again, in Mike Skinners’ verbal hall of mirrors, he could maybe justify all this as speaking truth to justice
Or something like that

For let’s be honest, Skinner raps of doing crack
And of the fine art of ‘Hotel Expressionism’
And of drinking ‘Too Much Brandy,’
And past songs have been filled with tales of E
But the highlight of his current American tour has been acceptance into this November’s New York Marathon
(Did you know Mike Skinner lived in Manhattan for most of last year? Nor did I
Though I know that almost every British musician lives in New York City for at least one year of their life, so I am not surprised)
And Skinner is setting a new standard for tour non-debauchery
By running in almost every city
Depite the heat and humidity
Three hours in Little Rock, boasts his tour diary
(and even I’m impressed by that)
So when you see this skinny geezer on stage, his figure is no longer the result of the raver’s lifestyle
But that of the runner’s
And if this makes some of the show somewhat deceptive
It’s also evidence that The Hardest Way To Earn An Easy Living represents, for all its faults, the mark of a man growing up

Mike and Leo take the Limelight at Webster Hall

But tonight the show is about getting down
Getting down low
Skinner asks the crowd to trust him
To place faith in the wide boy come pop star
(As if you’d trust him in a bar
While he was trying to con you )
And the crowd does trust him
Because that’s why they pay their money: to trust an entertainer
So when, late in the set, he tells them to go down low
They do
Until the whole hall is in Animal House toga party floor-crawling mode
And when the drummer jumps up off his stool
The crowd jumps back on its feet
And pumps the air like it just don’t care
Mike and his verbal sparring partner Leo have clearly got the power
It’s impressive
And infectious
And so impossible not to enjoy
That they pull the move off twice more before show’s end
And somehow I can’t get a picture of it on either occasion
Because I’m too busy wondering if I’m the only person left standing

The show is not as raw as back at Mercury Lounge in 2002,
When Skinner and his band were hung over and in trouble for breaking equipment the previous night
And drinking heavily on stage and starting the whole process over again
It was clear we were dealing with something special back then
Something unpredictable
Whereas now…
Well. We still are dealing with something special
But the show is tight, the jokes rehearsed
And though the quick snippets of covers are cool – ‘I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor,’ ‘Don’t You Wish Your Boyfriend Was Hot Like Me,’ ‘Music Sounds Better With You,’ all of them directed at one girl near the front row – they’re clearly rehearsed and obviously used every night
It works. But it’s not spontaneous.

Plus, the sound is muddy and you can’t hear the words
Which is a shame given that The Streets’ music is almost all about the words
It’s not just the PA:
Mike is merely mumbling while his stage-front partner Leo is letting his lungs rip with twice the clarity and velocity
Proving that the tunelessness on record is harder to achieve than they make out
Just as I noted with former sparring partner Kevin Trail at the Mercury Lounge
Yet for all this, and even though I preferred the old mod bass player
And it looked more like a band on a smaller stage
Where as now it looks more like a couple of rappers with backing hands
It’s still a great show

Mike Skinner back at The Mercury Lounge in 2002: “Totally drunk”

Several geezers in front of me get through several pints each
And one of them sends a text on his cell
That says “I’m at Webster Hall, watching The Streets, getting fully baked”
And I figure that Mike Skinner would appreciate that
Given that his songs are often about getting baked – or pranged – and sending text messages in the process
And my mate is still somewhere up in the VIP lounge, celebrating France’s victory,
He accuses The Streets of not being proper Brits for touring during the World Cup
Though Skinner did open his set by asking the crowd, “Did you watch the football?”
And his web site tour diary is full of comments about watching the games in strange time zones
Besides, it makes sense to tour the States during the World Cup
(You’d hardly tour Europe)
Which is why so many British bands are doing just that right now
And we should sympathize: It’s hard to make an easy living, after all

The set list is perfectly paced: opening with ‘Prangin Out,’ following up with ‘Don’t Mug Yourself,’ hitting hard in the middle with ‘When You Wasn’t Famous,’ ‘Never Went To Church,’ ‘War Of The Sexes’ and ‘Two Nations’ from the new album, and closing strong with ‘Has It Come To This,’ ‘Weak Become Heroes,’ and the last album’s “sad song” anthem ‘Dry Your Eyes,’ which has a few in the crowd lifting their lighters.

The encore is then exactly what you’d expect: the Blur-like American hit crossover ‘Fit But You Know It,’ for which Mike and Leo strip off their shirts (two of the group follow suit), and Skinner chants “I Love Rock’n’Roll” before crowd-surfing his way to the night’s conclusion.
In doing so he proves that trust is a two-way street….

…And that while you can indeed con an honest john by issuing a dud third album, a great live show will earn you respect, forgiveness, a loyal following – and the ongoing right to run your life as hard as you want, just as you know fit.

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December 2021