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Phil Collins may be physically frail, but in concert his hits remain as sturdy as ever

Phil Collins performsin March in Monterrey, Mexico Phil Collins performsin March in Monterrey, Mexico Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/Getty Images

Anybody who likes their pop music served with pathos would have loved the show Phil Collins delivered at Capital One Arena on Sunday night.

The songs remained the same, but Collins bravely forced fans to take him as the broken-down old rock star that he is.

This guy has had a rock-and-roll life like few others, starting more than half a century ago when Collins was in the cast of the Beatles’ 1964 feature film "A Hard Day’s Night," playing a schoolboy. He’s credited with selling about 100 million records as a member of Genesis and another 100 million as a solo act. And for a time in the 1980s, he was as big as anybody in the world: For the bi-continental Live Aid show in 1985, the most popular concert of the decade, Collins played at Wembley Stadium in London and then took a jet to Philadelphia to drum for a Led Zeppelin reunion.

Rock stars at that level aren’t supposed to be appear mortal, except in the face of massive drug overdoses or plane crashes. So Collins could have been brought to the stage with the lights turned down and then parked himself behind a piano all night. But on this night, Collins limped out from the wings very slowly, with a cane holding him up. He was all bundled up in a jacket despite the night’s summeresque temperatures and mugginess. He had the white stubble of somebody who hasn’t shaved in at least few days, and a facial expression that indicated he lives in constant pain.

And he opened the show with 1984’s mega-smash "Against All Odds" — a song that had him repeatedly begging everybody, "Take a look at me now!" — while sitting in a chair, in which he spent all but a few minutes of the 115-minute performance. Collins, who is 67 but looking so much older, calls his roadshow the "Not Dead Yet Tour," a seemingly knowing wink at his frail physical state. But while the vessel has aged, the songs were timeless.

"In the Air Tonight" had Nicholas Collins, the bandleader’s 17-year-old son and his current drummer, playing one of pop’s most famous drum rolls ever, which many in the crowd air-drummed along to. Collins brought out an air guitar of his own during "Something Happened on the Way to Heaven." During "Easy Lover," band members took turns coming down to joke with the inert frontman and playfully rub his hairless head. Collins’s spirit was probably willing to dance while he covered the Supremes’ "You Can’t Hurry Love" and showcased his own cryptic-but-bouncy "Sussudio," but his body kept him anchored to the seat.

He also threw in a trio of Genesis hits — "Throwing It All Away," "Follow You Follow Me" and "Invisible Touch" — all from the band’s later, poppier period after founding singer Peter Gabriel departed. At one particularly poignant point in the retrospective mini-set, the arena’s large video screens showed many old photos of a young and shirtless Collins early in his Genesis days, back when he could drum like a savant and had oh-so-much hair. The montage featured several shots and videos of Gabriel, too.

But the fans who packed the arena came for the later stuff and barely acknowledged the ode to Gabriel, the prog-rock pioneer whose complicated arrangements always got him the positive critical notices that Collins’s soft rock never did.

But one of the takeaways of the night is that great melodies age better in a song than any number of time changes, and Collins’s set proved that over time he’d mastered the catchy pop song as surely as anybody who had ever played the game. Collins closed with "Take Me Home" delivered as a huge arena anthem. The guy whose body no longer really allows him to stand got one last standing ovation, then waved goodbye and limped back into the darkness.

© Washington Post, by Dave McKenna

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