Last night, veteran British drummer, songwriter, and singer and Phil Collins performed the first of two NZ shows as part of his Not Dead Yet tour. James Dann was there.
It’s another day in paradise. Christchurch has turned on the weather for Phil Collins, with the temperature in the 30s, ensuring the 25,000 fans filling Christchurch Stadium are warm enough in a t-shirt and jandals, no jacket required (there are no more Phil Collins puns, I promise).
The name of the tour - Not Dead Yet - is taken from the name of his autobiography, but it could easily be read another way: after his ubiquity in the 80s, as a solo act, with Genesis, collaborating with other artists, appearing at Live Aid twice on the same day, and his cameos in movies, Collins had all but disappeared by the 2000s.
His music was so wilfully forgotten that you might have thought he did die, lost in the obits between Bowie and Cohen, MJ and Prince. Clearly, he’s still alive, but he’s been unwell. He looked brittle, walking onto the stage with the aid of a stick, and spent most of the show singing seated in a leather swivel chair, as though he was a CFO giving a presentation about projected revenue streams.
The thing is, Collins doesn’t need to tour. Considering how frail he looks, you might well wonder why he’s on the other side of the world, belting out the hits when he could be tucked up in bed watching Eastenders.
Sure, the tour will make money, but he can’t need it - he’s one of the best-selling British musicians in history. Seeing him on stage, it genuinely does seem to be about fun - for the fans, the band, for him. His body might be ageing, but his mind - and his sense of humour - are still fine.
After shuffling to the front of the stage to rousing applause, he opens with ‘Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)’, a sly dig at his own appearance. Next is ‘Another Day In Paradise’, then a couple more uptempo numbers, before a nod to the Genesis fans, with ‘Throwing It All Away’ and ‘Follow You, Follow Me’.
The energy then dips with a couple of songs from his unremembered nineties, which almost stray into new age contemporary music at times.
The backing band are an unlikely looking lot, but sound fantastic. There’s a quartet on backing vocals, who are joined by a four-man horn section, both of which brighten the bigger songs with soul and energy.
There’s two guitars - electric and acoustic - and a man hiding behind an impressive bank of synthesizers. The star of the band is undoubtedly the bass player, American session musician Leland Sklar. He looks like he should be in the Grateful Dead, bespectacled and balding, with a flowing grey beard that’s almost as long as his discography.
When all 14 members of the band are on stage at the same time, the sound gets messy. The songs that work best are those that skew minimalist rather than maximalist. Stripped back has always been where Collins is at his most vital.
Though his catalog doesn’t pack the same punch as some of his more storied contemporaries, it’s been praised by critics in recent years. He’s been sampled by rappers 2Pac, DMX, and Meek Mill, covered by Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and has influenced a generation of indie bands, including Sleigh Bells and the 1975.
Lorde’s even a fan, here tonight, showing her appreciation just a couple of rows back from the stage.
The drum sound that Collins pioneered on ‘In The Air Tonight’ in 1981 - a technique known as gated reverb - set the template for the short, snappy snare drum sound that was in vogue for that decade, and has been even more prevalent in contemporary pop. He started his career on the drums, and there are few other acts of his size that feature them so prominently.
Drum solos are generally a good indicator of rock excess, of egos that have cut loose from the moorings of taste and control. However, in this case, it’s warranted - as it isn’t about Collins. At least, it isn’t about Phil Collins.
Behind the kit for the night is his 17-year-old son Nicholas. About halfway into the set, the rest of the band leaves the stage, and Collins Jnr starts pounding the drums, alongside the percussionist. His dad is below the drum riser, air drumming along for a good 5 or 6 minutes. Then the two drummers step out from their kits and sit either side of Collins on Cajon drums.
The three thump out a groove with their hands, with Collins Snr still showing his deftness and dexterity in what is his only use of an instrument the whole night.
After the remainder of the band returns for ‘Something Happened On The Way To Heaven’ Collins Jnr shows his skill on the piano, accompanying his father for ‘You Know What I Mean’. He’s a more than capable understudy, and as Phil quips, “the wonderful thing about having Nicholas in the band is he brings the average age down.”
The band returns, the lights go purple, and the smoke machines go into overdrive, as the haunting opening chords of ‘In The Air Tonight’ echo into the warm evening. Though released almost 40 years ago, it still manages to sound like the future.
Considering its (justified) popularity, it’s a very weird song, its avant-garde indulgences are the last vestiges of Collins’ hedonistic prog-rock background before he fully took the plunge into the mainstream.
Layers of ethereal synthesizers build tension, minute after minute, before perhaps the most cathartic three seconds of drumming in the history of pop music. The crowd is on their feet for every second of it. After this release, the half-dozen songs that follow lift the tempo, including ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ and ‘Invisible Touch’, before a celebratory ‘Sussudio’, with streamers and confetti bursting from the ceiling.
The audience is good-natured, aided by the pleasant weather. Those who try to dance in the aisles are repeatedly told to sit back down by the security, whose valiant attempts to hold back the tide last about an hour and a half before the revelers prove too difficult to contain.
Following the euphoric nonsense of ‘Sussudio’, the encore is the more downbeat ‘Take Me Home’, after which the ample crowd take themselves home.
Phil Collins might not have the zip of his youth, but he’s got an exceptional back-catalogue, a proficient band, and a determination to put on a show for his many dedicated fans that would put many groups half his age to shame.
Phil Collins plays a second NZ show at Napier's Mission Estate Winery, on Waitangi Day, Wednesday, Feb 6.