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Not Dead Yet Live - Phil Collins 2017 in Cologne

Phil Collins – Never more alive!

Or: Against all odds, one more night in paradise


It is a quarter past eight on Sunday, June 11, 2017. In the 16,000 seater Lanxess Arena, Cologne, Germany, that has been sold out for months the lights have just gone out. Salif Keita's Souareba has indicated, as it has been doing for decades, that the show is about to begin. The venue is quiet except for the applause and the cheers from the audience. A little man leaning on a walking stick enters a stage that seems far too large for him. He meets standing ovations from the audience. This is a welcome for someone who is eagerly expected and whose appearance is a huge pleasure. No Hand In Hand, no drum intro. This moment belongs to the little man who moves slowly, gingerly ahead. He is clad in dark casual pants and an equally dark long-sleeved shirt. His goal is a leather swivel chair with arm rests like a comfortable bar stool. A microphone stand is located in front of it. Next to the chair is a small table with water, a towel, some sheets of paper and a box, probably of his favourite Grether's pastilles. Behind this seat to the left and the right two spots illuminate that exposed chair. This will be the little man's place for most of the evening. A white semi-transparent curtain hangs across the stage behind the chair. Nothing is to distract from the little man at this point. The staging in this huge arena conveys the message to everyone here: Take a look at me, I have got nothing to hide. A courageous, honest appearance without vanity from a man who is, despite his diminutive frame one of the greatest in his trade. This little man is Phil Collins. He who would be seen throughout so many decades flying Concorde from one Live Aid concert to another, forever circling the round stage of the Dance Into The Light tour, or – this is probably the central part of him – drumming brilliantly for Genesis, Brand X, Eric Clapton and so many other people. As he shuffles onto the stage everybody in this venue must realize that those memories are history, that they are probably over for good.

Phil Collins stops in front of the chair, greets into the crowd, hang his walking stick on the backrest and sits down. He now wears glasses and a watch on stage. It all resembles a reading. And why not? Phil Collins could read a bit from his autobiography. It would fit the evening's motto: Not Dead Yet, just the same as the title of his memoirs. Instead he bids everyone a “Guten Abend” [Good evening] and reaches for the familiar sheet of “mein Deutsch” [my German]. The only thing visible from his fall in a London hotel a couple of days previously is a big plaster under his left eye that hide the stitched laceration. After a brief declaration of his love to the audience the thing that everybody has come here for this evening begins – the music. The concert kicks off not with a catchy, driving song, but calm and soulful. It is one of the first songs he wrote on his own, and if Not Dead Yet is the motto for the night then Against All Odds is the subcaption. Which is why I combined the two in a slightly lumbering pun. I apologize, it was too hard to resist.

The curtain stays down throughout the first song with the spots throwing the silhouette of the band onto the cloth as a minimalistic background. While at the end of each show of the First Final Farewell tour in 2004 and 2005 a curtain would close at the end of Take Me Home, this curtain opens at the beginning of the second song, revealing the stage. It is much simpler than twelve years ago. There is a platform for singers, brass, keyboards, drums and percussion. Guitars and bass stand in front of the platform. There is a grand piano on the very left, whereas earlier there would only stand an e-piano. Behind the stage there is a 12ft LED screen topped with single varilights. Above these is a classic video screen. The stage design reminds me a bit of the No Jacket Required tour. Less is more. But this stage will show that it is capable of more than it appears to do.

The light show at the beginning of the second song makes some people in the audience think of In The Air Tonight, but Phil Collins does not shoot his wad this early in the show. The song that follows also has a literal component: Another Day In Paradise, a bit of carpe diem. After all the throwbacks in the last decade Phil Collins knows what that means. To complete this ambiguous trio her then plays his next überhit One More Night with lines such as “if I stumble, if I fall, just help me back”. You cannot put it past Collins that he is aware of the irony of that line – he never lost his English humour.

With the casual listeners satisfied for the time being, Phil is now ready to offer a rarity to his big fans: Wake Up Call has been played live only once before this tour; it has grown and matured beyond the album version.

There will always be different opinions as to whether Phil Collins needs to play Genesis songs with his own big solo repertoire. He did it 2004 (Misunderstanding) and again in 2005 (Invisible Touch). These songs are also part of his oeuvre, though, and Follow You Follow Me fits well into the show. Can't Turn Back The Years has patiently waited twenty years for its rediscovery; it is played in the 1997 version. The audience sit and listen carefully. This quiet and largely unknown song does not increase traffic to the toilets at all, but it does show how Phil Collins can captivate large crowds when he sings songs that he loves to sing and that mean a lot to him, even if they are no hits. The message of the song fits the general message of the show: You cannot turn back time. In other words, take me as I am.

I Missed Again showcases the full Vine Street Horns. The name remains the same, even though half the crew is new. It is the first up-tempo song of the show and has people standing again. And they keep standing for Hang In Long Enough. This is the first song where you really notice that Phil Collins does not move across the stage or kneel in front of his background singers. An early band introduction follows, with one of Phil's usual pranks when he welcomes Luis Bonilla as Luis Caballo because “Cuban names are too difficult for me”. He repeats the name for the fun of it. The trombone player takes in in good sport while Collins suspects the Cuban might never talk to him again. Phil almost forgets to introduce his drummer, as he would in the old days. But there is no old fixture called Chester Thompson back there. Behind the drum kit that looks like a mirrored version of his own we see a shy good-looking lad with a mischievous grin. This sixteen-year-old walks in the biggest possible footsteps he could ever have found – his father's. Nicolas Collins neither talks nor sings this night. He is pleasantly unobtrusive unless he drums. This teenager makes everybody forget that this tour band of the man who used to be the world's best drummer does not have an old, experienced hand at the drums. Before this, Phil's son has played the drums in the school band What You Know mainly at school functions or in small clubs in Miami. It is perhaps because of his unconcern and because the good lord has given him much of his dad's talent that he manages to fulfil the role. He has had his father as a mentor and teacher for the rest. What this young lad manages to play in Europe's biggest concert venue is simply breath-taking.

At the end of the band introduction Phil asks his backing singer Bridgette Bryant, who is touring again with him after twenty-seven years, to come to the front and do what she gets paid for (his words). Phil has grown old, and he has had a few close shaves and nearly killed himself with drink. Nobody who attends these shows cannot notice this. He looks fragile for his age. But he has lost neither his unique sense of humour nor his big talent for singing. His voice has changed with the years, but it is more soulful than before and much stronger than it was in the various appearances he made in 2016. Proof, if proof were needed: Separate Lives. He pays homage to the past in this duet with Bridgette Bryant. Many people associate this song with here because of Serious Hits Live. Phil points out for the first time that this song was written by his friend Steven Bishop. The first half of the show ends with another rediscovery. Only You Know And I Know had not been in the set lists since the 1995 Far Side Of The World tour. We go into the break with a bang, as it were. Another thing we have not seen in a Phil Collins show since 1995. Phil then dismisses his fans for 20 to 25 minutes, suggesting they might want to take a leak. Those who do not need a bathroom enjoy a slideshow of fake commercials that involve Phil Collins song titles.

The second half begins with the characteristic drum intro to I Don't Care Anymore. Before the song really begins Nic and Luis Conte embark on a drum and percussion duet that makes up (at least a bit) for the fact that Phil himself does not play the drums anymore. Drum solos, drum duets and drum battles have always been a fixture at Phil Collins shows. I Don't Care Anymore, like the song right before the break, is in the set for the first time since 1995. For the first time ever it is not the opening song, though it does kick of the second part. Something Happened On The Way To Heaven rocks the venue. After that the band leaves the stage to the Collins family. Phil gets up from his chair (he will later do that for just one other song) to sit down next to Nic on the piano. With a smile he introduces the song that follows as the only one of his songs that Nic likes. A classic, minimalistic performance of a song that has been very rarely played and never since 1997, You Know What I Mean. Wonderful, quite possibly the highpoint of the show. Just Phil and Nic, Father To Son, as it were. And I realize that the lad is quite good on the piano as well.

Even a slightly modernized new intro that still uses vocoder and synthesizer effects cannot conceal that the next song is probably the highlight of the evening for many of the people who have come here from all over the world. In The Air Tonight. Can't do without it. Phil is illuminated from below (like he was for Mama). There is no sign whether he is itching to finish this song on the drums. His vocals are strong, though not as strong as it has been. Songs like this show that you cannot get everything from your voice when you are sitting down. But that's the way it is, and it is an acceptable concession. Nic plays the drums as brilliantly as before at his climax of the show. He does not match his father, but nobody expected that from him. After all, Phil has that certain touch.

You Can't Hurry Love is the only Motown song on this tour. Though the band has rehearsed the title song Going Back in Miami, Phil's most recent solo effort had not made it into the set list. Two Hearts and Wear My Hat have not made the cut either, though the latter had been played at each show since the song came out. We do not know whether these songs have been rehearsed. Do I miss them? Two Hearts perhaps a bit, but Wear My Hat is a bit worn out despite the funny hat game. The up-tempo song list has been shortened by these two songs from the previous tour. Maybe it is a tribute to age. Rarely played and/or rediscovered songs have taken their place, which adds to the overall value of the show. Wake Up Call is the only Testify song on this tour, just like Dance Into The Light is the only song from its album. The videos on the screen remotely resemble the video clip for the song.

The lovely harmonic bridge from the 2005 show between Invisible Touch and Easy Lover has been torn down. It was great then and made the songs belong together. This time Invisible Touch ends with a bang (as in Genesis) and there is a slight stop before Easy Lover begins. A pity, come to think of it. But there are hardly any fluent transitions between songs. Each song is presented as a unit. Easy Lover marks the beginning of the show finale. Until then I hardly noticed that Phil would sit the whole time. I have become used to it, in fact. It does not matter with the quiet songs, though it does seem a bit peculiar in the faster songs: While backing singers and Vine Street Horns dance and whirl around him all he can do is turn his chair lean back and tap his foot. As in Easy Lover.

There is the familiar trio of singers, him with Arnold McCuller and Amy Keys. Phil sits between them and looks strangely tall. There is a degree of (intentional?) comedy in it, and it does not seem weird because it seems funny. It is a different story with Sussudio. I could not say why, but Phil looks out of place sitting down. He taps his left foot faster than for any of the previous songs, and Sussudio begins in its usual colourful way with confetti and streamers, but it somehow does not really fit into this show. Phil's vocals seem not the best here, for the first time this evening, and I had the feeling he has a problem with his timing. It all seems a bit forced, like the song people want to hear, and Phil not wanting to let them down. The audience does not mind. As usual, the band bows and leave the stage after Sussudio.

A few minutes and they are back for the scheduled encores. There is much more light and shadow for me in them. I will begin with the light as it matches the chronology. Only Phil and Brad Cole return to the stage for the first encore. It is the English version of Edith Piaf's Hymne à l'amour with the English title If You Love Me (Really Love Me). It is the second song Phil does not sing from his chair and the only one he actually performs standing. Or at least, leaning on the grand piano. The lyrics and the performance match perfectly. This is a diamond. The lyrics could be read as a good-bye, but that might be reading too much into it. The choice of this song reminds me of Always, his mother's favourite song that Phil surprised people with as an encore in 1990. The current version of Take Me Home I do not like at all. The drumming is hectic, and there is too much focus on drums and percussion. The backing singers are very dominant, too. It could all be due to the mix, though. Less definitely would have been more. The song does not need these additions.

The weirdest moment, however, is what Phil has saved for last. The band are still playing Take Me Home when he stands, takes his walking stick, greets the audience and leaves the stage the same way he entered it. The weird thing is: The band plays on. Everybody waves after the final chords and the curtain comes down. By this time Phil has already gone. He does not look back, he does not wave. A bizarre, jarring ending. They say that the captain is the last to abandon ship, don't they? I must admit, though, that this ship has been anything but sinking this night.

This leaves us with the question whether these were the last Phil Collins concerts. Yes, his tour will continue, not just til the end of June but until November when the postponed London shows will take place. There is talk of North American shows and there is a sword of Damocles labelled “rest of the world” hanging above him. It is a dilemma he has brought unto himself. I am going to attend Phil's fifth and final show in Cologne. I may recant on certain impressions then. What is most important, though, is this: I do not regret attending this tour. Many people have not cited the outrageous ticket prices as their reason for not attending the show but their desire to remember Phil the way he was ten years ago. I share this wish. Phil Collins' music has accompanied me through much of my life, and I have been there in the audience on some 50 shows with Genesis and solo. I was not afraid of a disappointment. Phil has played a show that makes the best of his health and the options and limitations that brings with it. I thought his health would be better, judging from his 2016 appearances. He seems to be worse than he was at the Little Dreams Foundation Galas and the US Open opening ceremonies in 2016. One this is certain after this evening: Phil Collins is not dead yet. Recent years have been much harder for him than one would guess, and they have left their traces – traces that cannot be undone. The future will show whether there will be more. I shall continue to walk with him and have his music accompany me in my life. Thank you for this, Phil!

Review & photos: Ulrich Klemt

Translation: Martin Klinkhardt

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