Will the NYC punters take to the UK stars?...
Bartenders at Irving Plaza are used to popping Heinie caps and pouring shots of Jack down the throats of the hipsters who typically gather here to see the latest hyped garage rock act. Not tonight. Tonight the place stinks of cheap perfume worn by chicks ordering Malibu and Diet Coke and letting their backwards-cap-sporting boyfriends pay for it. And that’s not all. We’ve also got prim 16-year-old girls making eyes at dangerous-looking guys in basketball jerseys posed with arms across their chests, looking sceptically at geeky indie-rockers nervously chewing the straws of their cocktails. Two nights of [a]Dizzee Rascal[/a] and [a]Streets[/a] at this 2,000-capacity venue sold out in the blink of an eye, and this is the strange mix of people who bought tickets.
The Rascal strides onstage in a Yankees cap, gleaming white sneakers and a pair of blue jeans decorated with a thick white stripe on the rear that looks like a giant, heart-shaped bull’s eye. The diamond stud in his ear glints in the spotlight as his lips part and a rapid stream of incomprehensible words come tumbling out. The audience roars like they’re seeing [a]Jay-Z[/a], and when the phrase “NYC in the house” emerges from the garbled clutter coming out of Dizzee’s mouth, one guy in the front row starts bowing down in prayer. This crowd may be an odd cross-section of freaks and geeks, but they have two things in common: they have absolutely no idea what the fuck [a]Dizzee Rascal[/a] is saying, and they completely adore every last word.
From the ’80s video game sounds of ‘Vexed’ to frenzy-inducing hits ‘Jus’ A Rascal’ and ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’, Dizzee’s set feels like a gracefully played game of musical pinball, all spliced and split analogue sounds overlaid by perfectly serrated rhymes. The audience is like a cult of willing acolytes. They sing his songs for him when he offers them the mic. They bob their heads at his command. He points to the balcony and everyone screams, he points to the pit and everyone screams louder, he grins and turns his cap sideways… everyone screams themselves hoarse.
It’s this euphoric audience that headliners [a]Streets[/a] must reclaim as their own. Mike Skinner takes over the stage every bit the hyperbolically British MC his fans expect: blue football jersey, lopsided cap, crisp blue jeans he has to keep tugging to keep on, and white trainers he uses to juggle beer cups filled with brandy shots into the audience, like little alcoholic footballs. He turns out his hits, including older favourites such as ‘Let’s Push Things Forward’ and ‘Geezers Need Excitement’ as well as prime tracks off the new record ‘Could Well Be In’ and ‘Fit But You Know It’ (which he introduces as “good old English rock’n’roll”). But compared to the gorgeous grime of Dizzee’s performance, [a]Streets[/a] sound soft and stale.
Skinner’s cause is not helped by Calvin Schmalvin, whose Seal-style warbling on ‘Blinded By The Lights’ and ‘It’s Too Late’ make the performance seem like a wimpy R&B croonfest instead of the clever, rowdy rap show of his last UK tour.
With the exception of the familiar singles and an awkward freestyle section criticising the city’s smoking ban, the set blends into itself, leaving the audience waiting for a hook they recognise or some banter to engage them. The banter is plentiful. Mike pours shots from bottles mounted on the drumkit and passes them to the crowd, claims he’s lost his credit card and invites the audience to buy him a drink, all in one entertaining rant. He also delivers the hooks and when he does the crowd responds gratefully, eager to feel the urge to dance, to shove each other in mock aggression, to wave their hands in the air and bop awkwardly like any Tuesday night hip-hop show. But it’s as if they are on autopilot, excited only because they paid to get in here and they want to be inspired, not because they actually have been.
Skinner’s strengths as an artist lie in the gleaming wit of his rhymes, the cheeky way in which he celebrates his white Britishness as he borrows from black American music, and in the simple realism of his raps. None of that legitimate genius translates well tonight. Though both artists are touring behind brilliant records, tonight it’s [a]Dizzee Rascal[/a] who brings that brilliance alive onstage.