A stooped bald man in baggy black clothes shuffles centre stage, a walking stick helping him along. Under a single spotlight, Phil Collins hangs his stick on the back of a high chair and sits down. “A word of explanation,” says one of the best-selling British musicians of all time, first as drummer and singer of Genesis, then as a solo performer. Back surgery has left his legs “buggered”, so he’ll be sitting throughout the show. “But I’ll be enjoying myself,” he adds, before the opening piano refrain of Against All Odds echoes across the arena.
Unlike the body, the voice is largely unravaged by time. It’s still soulful, sometimes silky, occasionally bruised. “Take a look at me now,” Collins implores. Just before the drums turn the 1984 track into the almighty power ballad it always was, a vast shadow of his new drummer looms on a white screen behind him, arms aloft and ready for service. Sitting behind the kit is Collins’s 16-year-old son Nicholas. Now drumming for his dad. The heir stepping into the father’s shoes. As meditations on ageing go, it is pretty powerful stuff.
And, although the limitations of an immobile singer were ever-present on the opening night of his UK tour – lack of action, periods of longueurs – Collins’s excellent 14-piece band and a rich, if dated, back catalogue carried him through. The last half hour was positively carnivalesque.
To see the 66-year-old on stage at all is quite something. He retired in 2011 to be with his family. However, domestic woes and boredom led him to hit the bottle. Live shows last summer – his first for a decade – convinced him to do a fuller jaunt. Not for nothing is this tour entitled “Not Dead Yet”.
Highlights lurked unexpectedly. Genesis’s 1978 breakout hit, Follow You Follow Me, got the crowd on their feet. Shades of Bruno Mars can be heard in the plastic soul of Hang in Long Enough, a reminder that for the second half of the Eighties, Collins was mainstream-pop royalty. And the 1985 ballad Separate Lives, outwardly so cheesy, is somehow starkly poignant. The line about it being so typical that love leads to isolation brought to mind images of a freshly retired Collins descending into listlessness and self-destruction. Few songs do loneliness like a Collins ballad.
An interval killed the momentum, but a father-son rendition of 1981’s You Know What I Mean with Collins Jnr on piano followed by an icy In The Air Tonight – complete with that famous drum fill – drew us back in. However, it was the final four songs that lit the arena up. Genesis’s Invisible Touch had glorious venom, while Easy Lover – among the finest pop of the Eighties – drew comedy from circumstance: a static and knowingly grouchy Collins rebuffed the mock advances of his backing singers as they circled his chair. Sussudio brought streamers and confetti, while an encore of Take Me Home saw an arena-sized singalong.
Against all odds, Collins pulled this out of the bag.
Until December 3. Tickets: livenation.co.uk