Phil Collins claims to be a weak old man, and at first blush, it’s hard to argue with him.
After the lights went down inside uptown Charlotte’s Spectrum Center on Sunday night, the 68-year-old maker of ginormous pop hits from half a lifetime ago shuffled out from the wings with the aid of a cane, took a couple of shallow bows, and — once he reached center stage — collapsed in a heap onto a chair, as if he’d just run a marathon.
And before his band struck up their instruments, before he sang a single note, he took the elephant in the room by the trunk.
“I’m gonna be sitting down for a lot of tonight. But don’t be alarmed,” said Collins, at that moment quite possibly the only person inside the jam-packed arena who wasn’t up on his or her feet. Then: “Getting old sucks. You know, back surgery, foot’s f----d. It’s ugly. ... But hey” — and here he paused for effect — “I’m not dead yet.”
The crowd roared in response to the quip, one of the former Genesis bandleader’s favorites since he incorporated it into the title of his long-running comeback (?)/farewell (?) tour, which started as “Not Dead Yet, Live!” in mid-2017 and has been the “Still Not Dead Yet, Live!” since this past June.
But if anyone had any concern about whether his decision to get back out and stay on the road might be ill-advised, or whether he might be trying to hang on too long, or whether his numerous physical limitations (we’ll get into those in a minute) include ailing vocal abilities, Collins laid them to rest barely two minutes after he took his seat.
That is, in fact, probably why he leads off with a ballad like 1984’s chart-topping “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)“ — because throughout the melancholy-piano-driven first half of the song, there’s nowhere for his voice to hide.
If he’d launched into things with a much brighter, much brassier number like 1990’s jazzy jaunt “Hang in Long Enough” (No. 3 in the setlist) or 1985’s daffy, danceable “Don’t Lose My Number” (No. 4), it almost certainly would have taken time and effort to assess his voice; as would become evident, his vocals can tend to get drowned out when his five band members, his four backup singers and his four-piece horn section are boisterously firing on all of their cylinders at once.
So, then, while the unorthodox decision to start the show by talking instead of singing was to set up his No-I’m-still-not-dead-yet joke, the decision to perform “Against All Odds” at the outset seemed to be his way of saying, Oh, and yeah, I can still sing.
Over the course of the next two hours, Collins — dressed simply in all black, with a crisp crimson shirt peeking out from his jacket — wound his way through a close-to-perfect setlist: Thirteen of his greatest solo hits, three of Genesis’, and a couple of ’80s-era duets that wouldn’t have been the same without him.
And although Collins mostly stayed put, the stage was remarkably full of life.
The Vine Street Horns — trumpeters Danny Fornero and Harry Kim, saxophonist George Shelby and trombone player Luis Bonilla — delightfully punched up performances of songs like “I Missed Again,” “Who Said I Would” and “Something Happened On the Way to Heaven” (and many more) with their brass instruments ... but they were also simply a joy just to watch, as the four men smiled through corny-but-cute choreographed dance steps, or clowned around with the backup singers.
Those backup singers — Bridgette Bryant, Amy Keys, Arnold McCuller and Lamont van Hook — were equally ebullient, covering ably for Collins on choruses with high notes that now fall just outside of his range and getting rewarded by the star with brief opportunities to shine themselves.
For instance, mid-show, Bryant put a powerful, gospel-tinged twist on Marilyn Martin’s part during another aching ballad (“Separate Lives,” from the soundtrack for the 1985 movie “White Knights”) and earned a standing ovation; later, Keys and McCuller took turns filling in for Philip Bailey on a rousing rendition of another uptempo ’80s smash, “Easy Lover.”
But arguably the most captivating presence on the stage aside from Collins was the band’s 18-year-old drummer, who just happens to be Collins’ son Nicholas. Despite looking much more like he belongs in a boy band than in a nostalgia band, he has an astonishing command of his drum kit.
(This, incidentally, is another shrewd move on Phil’s part. What better way to keep his fans from pining away for the past — a past when he was still physically able to beat on the drums himself — than to make them hopeful for the future? And his kid’s definitely got a future.)
Yet one of the most touching moments of the night came not when Nicholas was behind the drums, but rather when he was briefly behind the grand piano.
“When we started talking about doing shows again ... and it was decided that Nic was gonna play the drums — he was then 16 ... we thought it was a good idea that maybe he listen to his dad’s old records. You know, just so that he knew what was coming,” Phil said, wryly. “He listened to them, and he found a song he liked. Just one.”
Father and son both laughed, then Nic shrugged, frowned, and mouthed the words, Maybe two.
They proceeded to perform “You Know What I Mean,” just the two of them; and although the song is a deep cut off of 1981’s “Face Value” album, the only selection in the set that didn’t qualify as a genuine hit, it didn’t feel at all like run-to-the-restroom filler. In fact, it felt surprisingly and genuinely sweet when Nic rose from the piano afterward, approached his dad from behind, and leaned over to wrap him in a warm embrace.
Now, it’s hard to know whether Nic knew this at the time — and there were probably many fans who missed it, too — but not 15 minutes earlier, while Nic and percussionist Richie Garcia banged away on stage alone during their shared moment in the spotlight, Phil took a scary fall.
Before explaining that, though, let’s explain why Phil Collins has such a hard time getting around these days.
About 10 years ago, he had surgery on his neck, an attempt to repair severe spinal issues and nerve damage as a result of years of slouching over his drum kit. He stopped drumming entirely not long after that. He had another surgery in 2015, this time on his back, and fell while he was recovering on crutches, fracturing his foot; later, he fell again, fractured another part of the same foot and eventually developing nerve damage in that foot that led to problems with his gait. In 2017, those problems caused him to fall and cut his head badly on a chair while heading to the bathroom in a hotel room in the middle of the night.
That’s why he walks with a cane now, and why he mainly sits down when he sings. But there’s a part of the show, while his son and Garcia are beating their drums, when Collins gets up and moves — mostly in darkness — to another chair, eventually to be joined by his drummer and his percussionist at a set of box-shaped percussion instruments called cajóns.
While his main stool is on a swivel and has arms and a high-ish back, the chair he sits in for the slap-the-box jam session has no arms and a very low back ... and when he plopped himself down into it, he did so with a little too much momentum to the right.
It seemed to happen in slow motion. The chair and his body hung in the air for a couple seconds, and though the spotlights weren’t on him, fans could clearly enough see that he was about to go over. There were audible gasps as the chair started tipping, and even louder gasps when he crashed to the floor.
As his son and Garcia continued playing, three roadies rushed in, collected him off of the floor and helped him to his feet. Once he got his bearings, you could make out Collins flashing them a thumbs-up before settling safely into his seat.
After the spotlight returned to him, he smiled and enthusiastically slapped away at his cajón with his son and Garcia. Then he got up and walked gingerly but confidently back to his chair at the front of the stage. Then, later, he rose again and made his way slowly to a chair next to the piano Nic would play.
They did their thing together, Phil got his hug, then the stage darkened again. In the shadows, you could make out Collins moving back to his regular chair, unassisted, as blue and purple strobes danced and an ominous cacophony of atmospheric, almost mystical sounds filled the arena.
Finally, the iconic dripping synth and the purring of the Daryl Stuermer’s electric guitar signaled the opening of “In the Air Tonight,” and a floodlight was switched on to reveal Collins standing at his mic. During an extended rendition of his most haunting, most famous work that stretched beyond seven minutes long, Collins remained standing — through the thunderous drum fill in the middle, through the angriest parts of the chorus.
As I watched, I couldn’t help but think of Rocky and a movie quote that was escaping me. When I got home, I jumped onto Google and found it: “Nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward.”
It could be a long, long time before Charlotte sees a performance as gutsy, as gritty and as great as this one.
Phil Collins’ setlist
1. “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)“
2. “Another Day in Paradise”
3. “Hang in Long Enough”
4. “Don’t Lose My Number”
5. “Throwing It All Away”
6. “Follow You Follow Me”
7. “I Missed Again”
8. “Who Said I Would”
9. “Separate Lives”
10. “Something Happened On the Way to Heaven”
11. “You Know What I Mean”
12. “In the Air Tonight”
13. “You Can’t Hurry Love”
14. “Dance Into the Light”
15. “Invisible Touch”
16. “Easy Lover”
18. “Take Me Home”