Phil Collins’ “Not Dead Yet” Tour Gets a Pulse Check in Chicago

My first reaction was: this might be painful to watch.

There was Phil Collins, former Genesis frontman and ‘80s pop music solo superstar, gingerly walking with a cane as he entered from stage left at Chicago’s United Center, revealing the lingering effects of a recent back surgery to correct dislocated vertebrae.  

Then my thought quickly shifted to: it couldn’t be nearly as painful for the 23,000 or so fans in attendance as it must have been (either mentally or physically) for the 67-year-old singer/drummer who – according to his official website – suffers from “drop foot” as a result of the surgery and who performed nearly all the show seated in a chair at center stage.

One of several Phil Collins face pics shown in a montage before his show at Chicago’s United Center on October 22, 2018.

For those of us who hadn’t caught up with the latest health news about this one-time pop music favorite who’s been out of the spotlight for years, the scene was a little jarring at first.

But with a tour that he aptly titled “Not Dead Yet, Live!,” Phil Collins set out to prove just that – limited mobility aside – to the very enthusiastic crowd who came to hear the British superstar perform familiar hits, not “dance into the light” as it were (to punningly borrow one of his song titles).  

It would be equally tempting to make pun of another Genesis song title (“I Can’t Dance”), but that would be a bit cruel given his condition, plus that tune was left off the set list.

Collins performed 20 songs in all, including three he covered by Genesis.  If nothing else, they were all a reminder of just how prolific and how omnipresent the singer/drummer once was, especially during the ‘80s decade of decadence when albums generated handfuls of hit singles that were played incessantly on pop radio.  One by one, Collins poured through his considerable catalog of hits, including five of his eight Billboard Hot 100 Number One songs and many other top-40 singles.

He started the set with his first No. 1, “Against All Odds,” the 1984 love ballad whose title takes on new meaning today given the many personal setbacks Collins has had to overcome to get to this point in his career, including three divorces, substance abuse problems and multiple surgeries. 

“Odds” was followed by another No. 1, the oft-criticized “Another Day In Paradise,” his 1989 commentary on the homeless problem, which some accused Collins of exploiting for his own gain as it became his biggest chart single (four weeks at No. 1 in 1989/90).

It wasn’t until song number three that the set moved into more uptempo fare with the brass-heavy 1981 tune “I Missed Again,” from Collins’ first solo album.  Things continued to ramp up with the next number, “Hang In Long Enough,” before returning to ballad form with one of Genesis’ biggest (and best) hits, “Throwing It All Away.”

Like most of the other songs on this night, Collins performed “Throwing” in a lower key than the original 1986 recording, a sign that the singer wouldn’t be hitting any of those top-of-his-lungs high notes that he used to reach with regularity.  Not taking anything away from his voice now, which is still in fine tonal form – particularly for a man whose been through as much physically as Collins has – but the lower keys gave some of the tunes a more depressing feel than their original versions intended.  Collins and band salvaged “Throwing It All Away” (video below) with a fresher take, though, courtesy of a call-and-response chant during the intro that gave the song a more spiritual feel.

With Collins understandably having to adjust many of the songs to accommodate his aged vocals, it was refreshing to hear the next song (and the second of the three Genesis tunes), “Follow You, Follow Me,” performed in its original key.  The song, which in 1978 introduced Collins as the band’s lead singer and which he originally recorded in a lower singing register, didn’t require many vocal acrobatics to begin with, so he wasn’t challenged when conforming to its original vocal arrangement.

“Follow You” was followed by two lesser-played songs, “Can’t Turn Back The Years” and “Who Said I Would,” before Collins reached back into his bag of No. 1 tricks for the slowest of ballads, 1985’s “Separate Lives,” the tune originally recorded for the film White Nights.  Instead of original duet partner Marilyn Martin, however (whatever happened to her anyway?), backup singer Bridgette Bryant did the female parts.  

For all the pop sell-out criticism Collins received during his peak year of 1985 (five top-5 pop hits, three of them No. 1s), which culminated with “Separate Lives,” the live version of that song on this night somehow came off more soulful and appealing than the original, thanks largely to Bryant’s stirring vocal contribution.

Speaking of schmaltzy pop ballads, Collins’ rise from being the drummer for the well-respected progressive rock band Genesis to becoming that group’s lead-singer and purveyor of some of its bigger, yet cheesier pop hits – as well as his own solo recordings – have been fodder for harsh criticism from early Genesis fans and from fellow musicians alike.  One of the most famous pot shots came during Collins’ past feud with former Oasis members Noel and Liam Gallagher, fellow Brits who referred to Collins’ music as “boring” and who once assessed his music thusly: “just because you sell a lot of records, it doesn’t mean to say you’re any good.”

In Collins’ defense, he was in the business precisely to sell records – as are most other artists who commit their music to tape and package albums for purchase.  The fact that Collins was good at it and sold lots of them shouldn’t be held against him, or viewed through a more negative prism now that our musical palates are 30 years older.  

Still, the record that receives the brunt of that 20/20 hindsight criticism is the one that sold the most for Collins: his 1985 album No Jacket Required.  Critics now look back on Jacket with some disdain, despite how much praise they heaped on it upon its release 33 years ago.  The same folks hating on the album today are likely the ones who helped create its big No. 1 hits “One More Night” and “Sussudio,” plus top-10 follow-ups “Don’t Lost My Number” and “Take Me Home.”  

That said, only three of Jacket’s songs made the night’s set list: “Sussudio” and “Home,” which ended the show, along with the earlier performed “Who Said I Would,” perhaps a concession by Collins that the world has had enough of No Jacket Required.

The fans here still loved it though. 

“Sussudio” easily revved up the crowd who were standing and dancing at their seats and in the aisles.  It also received the most crowd participation (how many times can you “just say the word” in one sitting?).  And “Home,” which battles with “In The Air Tonight” as Collins’ signature song, was the sole tune chosen for the show’s encore performance.

Phil Collins and son Nicholas perform at Chicago’ United Center on October 22, 2018.

Yet the show’s best moment had come at the midway point when Collins’ 17-year-old son Nicholas gave a tremendous drum solo, followed by a drum trio featuring the two Collins and another percussionist. That preceded the most touching moment of all, a father-son duet in which young Nicholas accompanied his father on piano while the singer performed the ballad “You Know What I Mean.”

That was followed by everyone’s air-drum-inducing favorite and the highly anticipated “In The Air Tonight,” which also sounded good, despite this writer’s declaration to never voluntarily listen to the tune again, citing its overplayed status (it never moved me much anyway).

By the end of the show, most agreed that Phil Collins put on a great performance, despite the odds against him and the somewhat undeserved criticism levied at him after his heyday ended several decades ago.  Collins’ legacy as a former hit maker should remain intact, and concerts like the one at United Center only solidify that legacy. 

But most importantly, Collins proved that he is definitely not dead yet, as the 23,000 in attendance who “hung in long enough” on October 22 can attest.

Okay, no more puns.  Go see Phil Collins live if he’s coming to a town near you.

Below is the live performance of “In The Air Tonight.”

DJRob

Phil Collins’ Set List for Chicago’s United Center on October 22, 2018:

“Souareba” (intro played during picture montage)

  1. Against All Odds
  2. Another Day In Paradise
  3. I Missed Again
  4. Hang In Long Enough
  5. Throwing It All Away
  6. Follow You, Follow Me
  7. Can’t Turn Back The Years
  8. Who Said I Would
  9. Separate Lives
  10. You’ll Be In My Heart
  11. Drum Trio
  12. Something Happened On The Way To Heaven
  13. You Know What I Mean
  14. In The Air Tonight
  15. You Cant Hurry Love
  16. Dance Into The Light
  17. Invisible Touch 
  18. Easy Lover
  19. Sussudio
  20. (encore) Take Me Home
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