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Phil Collins, hobbled but not dead yet, returns to Tampa triumphant

The ’80s pop legend moves a little slower post-retirement, but nearly 16,000 fans didn’t mind. | Concert review

The sight, at first, was kind of jarring: Phil Collins, indisputable pop icon of the ’80s, hobbling to the stage with a cane, shuffling to a swivel chair and plopping down like he’d just hiked Mount Fuji.

“Back operation, getting old sucks, foot’s f---ed,” he groused, listing the maladies that have hobbled his mobility since what was supposed to be his retirement in 2005. “But we’re going to have some fun, yeah?”

Sure enough, he made it all alone to a swivel chair in the spotlight on Thursday at Amalie Arena. And that alone was worth a standing ovation from nearly 16,000 fans. Because regardless of his physical condition, who would have thought we’d ever see Phil Collins in Tampa again?

At 68, an age when more than a few of his peers are calling it quits, Collins’ Not Dead Yet Tour represents an all-too-human comeback. He hardly moves, rarely grins, doesn’t drum, and his voice has seen better days. It’s true.

Yet his Tampa concert, one of only 16 scheduled in America this year, felt like an overdue celebration and thank-you, with some fans in disbelief they actually had a chance to see him live. Much like Billy Joel and Neil Diamond, Collins has outlived his reputation as a popular critical punching bag, with artists who weren’t around back in the ’80s — Taylor Swift, Lorde, the 1975 — citing his uncanny pop songcraft as an inspiration and influence.

Collins must know this, for he thanked the fans for coming out and cheering so loudly: “It’s Thursday, right? You had a choice. You could stay in and watch CNN and Trump make a fool of himself,” he declared.

And he started humbly, with a plaintive, modest rendition of Against All Odds, seated at center stage, with his band behind a curtain, asking the audience to take a look at me now; there’s just an empty space.

Phil Collins performs at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sept. 26. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

Collins isn’t the first pop singer to sit throughout a show — artists like Brian Wilson, Loretta Lynn and the late B.B. King have all handled diminished mobility with grace — although it can feel incongruous watching him rock back in his chair, punch the air, blow the odd kiss and wave to his 14-piece backing band throughout sugar-high pop songs like Who Said I Would and Easy Lover.

But it was also clear just how much fun Collins still has with that band. Most of them have played with him for many years, including shamanistic bassist Leland Sklar, former touring Genesis guitarist Daryl Stuermer and guitarist Ronnie Caryl, who has played with Collins since they were schoolmates. Collins got a grandfatherly twinkle of glee in his eyes when Stuermer sneaked up behind him on the Don’t Lose My Number, and stuffed a cash tip in the bell of saxophonist George Shelby following cheesetastic solos on I Missed Again and Who Said I Would.

Phil Collins, along with bassist Leland Sklar, perform at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sept. 26. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

But the real star of the band — and quite possibly the main reason Collins has returned to touring at all — is his 18-year-old son Nicholas, who took his place behind the drums. It was Nicholas who brought Phil’s gated-snare sound to vibrant life on Another Day in Paradise; Nicholas who paired off with Richie Garcia for an extended drum-off to please all the percussion nerds who grew up studying Collins’ technique; Nicholas who got Collins to sit down with a slap-top cajon to rumble and rattle into the intro to Something Happened on the Way to Heaven.

And it was Nicholas who moved down to the piano to accompany his father on the tender ballad You Know What I Mean. It was the best Collins’ voice sounded all night.

“He asked me if I could teach him it, and you know, I only wrote the bloody thing, I couldn’t teach him it," Collins deadpanned. "I don’t remember what I did yesterday; that was over 35 years ago. It’ll happen to you, don’t worry.”

True enough, that decade-plus of dormancy has taken a toll on Collins’ talents. He struggled with Something Happened on the Way to Heaven — objectively his most fun song, don’t @ me — and seemed to miss a beat or two in the opening bars of You Can’t Hurry Love. And he mostly sat out the key change in a rushed Invisible Touch, letting the audience handle most of the upper-level singing near the end.

Phil Collins performs at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sept. 26. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]

None of that really mattered, though. What mattered was the celebratory sugar high Collins and his band blasted to the rafters on Dance Into the Light and Sussudio. And what really hit home was the overwhelming drama of In the Air Tonight, the stage lit in indigo, hazy with smoke, with a strobing spotlight flashing on Nicholas during that all-time iconic drum fill.

In the Air Tonight was the only number all night that saw Collins stand up to sing, heightening the song’s ominous tension to the max. But it wasn’t the last time he stood.

No, that came when he walked off stage Thursday, possibly for the final time ever in Tampa. After Take Me Home climaxed in a symphony of sound and rainbow lights, the band stood and clapped behind Collins, shaking his hand and patting his back as he limped down the steps at stage right.

The audience, many of whom had also been sitting all show, stood and cheered, and kept cheering. Collins turned back to wave his thanks. It was the widest he smiled all night.

Phil Collins performs at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Sept. 26. [JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times]