Phil Collins’s old band, Genesis, played its first North American show in the Boston area "about  or 400 years ago," he joked to his audience at TD Garden on Tuesday. It was 1972, and the eccentric Brits performed a lunchtime set for about 35 people "studying and eating their sandwiches" at Brandeis University.
The mood was a lot more jubilant at the Garden, but it was infused with more than a whiff of fatality. Not least because Collins, 67 and in faltering health, has chosen to call his two-year-long, out-of-retirement world tour the "Not Dead Yet" tour.
"He’s not dead yet!" hollered the discount T-shirt sellers working the crowd on their way into the arena.
His songs, of course, are vitamins for pop fans of a certain age. His bitter ballads, quirky pop-rockers, and Motown-inspired grooves, both with the latter-day Genesis and as a solo star, gave Collins more Top 40 hits in the US than any other artist in the 1980s. On Tuesday, the setlist ranged from horn-saturated romps ("I Missed Again") and tinkling crooners ("Another Day in Paradise") to — wait for it, because we all did — Collins’s creepy, thunder-drumming signature song, "In the Air Tonight."
As the band took the stage behind a thin dark screen, he walked out front with the aid of a cane and sat down in a drafting chair, as if he were a guest on a chat show.
To his credit, he embraced his new limitations straight away. He’s had back surgery, he explained, and his foot is messed up. "Getting old sucks," he said.
Then he sang his movie soundtrack power ballad "Against All Odds," with its poignant appeal that a lover "take a look at me now." When the drums came crashing in, as they usually do on a Phil Collins song — he was, after all, Genesis’s drummer before stepping out as the band’s lead singer — the screen filled with the huge shadow of the young man playing them, backlit from behind the screen.
Though he’d clearly rather not, Collins made a few concessions to fans of his Genesis days. "Follow You Follow Me," the 1978 song that effectively introduced the band’s transition from experimental art-rock to arena pop, featured a montage of the band in its commercial heyday, and Collins in more limber form. The next song, not by coincidence, was "Can’t Turn Back the Years."
The touring band worked hard to overcome his restrictions. Longtime collaborators the Vine Street Horns barraged several songs. A four-person crew of backing singers covered for Collins, with Bridgette Bryant getting a duet on the mushy "Separate Lives" and Amy Keys sassing some of Philip Bailey’s parts on "Easy Lover."
The core band was anchored by longtime Collins associate Daryl Stuermer on guitar and bassist Leland Sklar, who parlayed his early work with James Taylor into a long career as one of the most requested session men in the business. Collins’s introduction of his son, Nicholas — who is just 17 — as the drummer got the biggest reaction of the night.
As his dad used to do, Nicholas attacks the kit. Midset, the band left the stage so the young man and percussionist Richie Garcia could indulge themselves in a drum-off. When Collins began slapping a rhythm on a tabletop cajon, his son and Garcia joined him, straddling box drums. Nicholas also played piano for his father on the fragile "You Know What I Mean." That was sweet.
From there, the show hurtled to its two-hour mark. The full band wrought every ounce of suspense out of "In the Air Tonight," then bopped through Collins’s cover of the Supremes’ "You Can’t Hurry Love" and Genesis’s "Invisible Touch." When they played the punch-drunk, oh-so-’80s "Sussudio," the confetti and streamers came down.
The band returned for one apt encore. "Take Me Home," which may or may not refer to being institutionalized (" ’Cause I don’t remember"), became a Garden-wide sing-along. Yes, we’re all headed home, one way or another.
© Boston Globe, by James Sullivan
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