As far as rock star entrances go, it was unorthodox.
On Monday night at the American Airlines Center, Phil Collins entered leaning heavily on a cane. His feet shuffling steadily forward, the 68-year-old Collins made a beeline for a swivel chair. The affectionate roars from the sold-out room greeting the multiplatinum pop icon — making his first Dallas appearance in more than 15 years, kicking off the current leg of his wryly titled Still Not Dead Yet, Live! tour — seemed to buoy him as he stashed his cane and took his seat.
“I’m gonna be sitting down for a lot of this evening, because getting old sucks,” Collins said, wasting no time addressing the elephant in the room. “I’ve recently had a back operation, my foot’s fucked — it’s not looking good. But we’re gonna have some fun anyway.”
It was a sobering, almost heartbreaking start to the night, but any sense of wallowing in Collins’ diminished physical abilities evaporated as soon as he opened his mouth to sing. While time has understandably sapped some of the snap from Collins’ melodious tenor, even with the concessions to aging — lowered keys, slightly slowed tempos — the two-hour performance was simultaneously a deeply satisfying nostalgia bath and a brisk master’s class in pop songcraft.
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Backed by a formidable 14-piece band — drummer Nic Collins, guitarists Daryl Stuermer and Ronnie Caryl, percussionist Richie Garcia, bassist Leland Sklar, keyboardist Brad Cole, backing vocalists Arnold McCuller, Amy Keys, Lamont Van Hook and Bridgette Bryant, trumpeters Harry Kim and Dan Fornero, saxophonist George Shelby and trombonist Luis Bonilla — Collins powered through one hit after another, sending waves of ecstasy crashing through the audience, itself an eclectic mix of young and old. (Nic Collins, Phil’s 18-year-old son, is a chip off the block when it comes to keeping time; he also joined his father on piano for a tender rendition of “You Know What I Mean.”)
Opening with the ne plus ultra of 1980s power ballads, “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” Collins moved methodically through his solo catalog, touching upon all of its phases, from his socially conscious crusades (“Another Day in Paradise”) to his often astringent love songs (“Something Happened on the Way to Heaven,” “I Missed Again”) to his forays into Motown (“You Can’t Hurry Love”).
He also took care to incorporate Genesis into the set, reeling off “Follow You Follow Me” and “Invisible Touch,” with the former featuring a poignant highlight reel on-screen of Collins and his former bandmates goofing around at the height of stardom.
Through it all, Collins — who appeared in unforgiving high-def close-ups on the video screens flanking the stage and often toggled between joy and discomfort — seemed intent on cementing his legacy as one of pop music’s defining talents.
For some, the name Phil Collins is an epithet, the apotheosis of wretched 1980s excess, the musical manifestation of the Me Decade. For others, particularly children of the '80s, who grew up being shuttled around in cars often blaring one of Collins’ inescapable hit singles, his music remains an auditory portal, a way to reach back and touch — however briefly — memories of simpler, easier times.
Collins himself, in his memoirs, media interviews and elsewhere, would likely argue the truth resides somewhere in between those extremes. Regardless, the honorary Texas citizen is certainly less derided than he was at the close of the 20th century, thanks in part to how well his catalog has held up.
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It was tough, at times, to watch Collins gamely struggle to indulge his artistic impulses — a leg bouncing to the beat, his hands gesticulating, throwing himself back in his chair to emphasize a vocal crescendo — with the understanding that he had, almost quite literally, broken his body to bring us all the songs we so eagerly sang back to him.
Which is why, when Collins stood up, during the sinister opening of his signature “In the Air Tonight,” something like an electric charge coursed through the room. Here stood a man, having paid an excruciating physical toll — his spirit very much willing, his flesh seemingly weak — who would not deny himself the sensation of performing such a visceral, beloved song seated in the spotlight.
For a moment, time froze.
As he stood, clutching the mic stand, Collins’ voice seemed to grow slightly stronger, and with top-notch musicians behind him, faithfully rendering the slow-burn classic, seemed to find an equilibrium that sustained him throughout the song. Seeing Phil Collins will himself through “In the Air Tonight,” continuing to tour and perform and defy his uncooperative body, was tantamount to watching someone bend reality to their will, captivating a packed arena in the process. If that’s not the very definition of an iconic rock star, what is?