It's very hard not to come off like a glorified wedding band when you play a two-hour concert comprised entirely of Motown and soul covers, but last night in New York, Phil Collins pulled it off. Backed by a killer 18-piece band that included two members of the Motown house band the Funk Brothers and two members of Genesis, Collins got most everybody in the Roseland Ballroom dancing to classics by Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Ronettes. "You may wonder what we're doing up here," he said early in the evening. "A couple of years ago I decided to make a record of the songs I loved as a teenager. I haven't played most of the songs since my school band. If I fuck up the words, who cares?"
Collins scored a Top 10 hit with his cover of the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" in 1982, but his career has largely teetered back and forth between prog-rock and 1980s pop. From the moment he took the stage and burst into "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" it was clear this music was much closer to his heart than even some of his own hits. Every nuance of the original arrangements was meticulously recreated, aided by the presence of Funk Brothers bassist Bob Babbitt and guitarists Eddie Willis and Ray Monette. A five-piece horn section, six back-up singers, a drummer, two percussionists and a keyboardist rounded out the lineup, who played on a gigantic semi-circle stage that looked like it came straight from the original Copacabana.
Before this brief six-show tour launched, Collins expressed concern that fans would come to the gigs and expect to hear his own catalog hits, but most everybody seemed please to hear hits by other artists. Highlights included a super funked out rendition of the Temptations' "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," the Four Tops' "Standing in the Shadows Of Love" and the Miracles' "Going To a Go-Go," which featured Collins sharing the front of the stage with his backup singers. Not all the songs were staples of oldies radio. He dug deep with covers of the Ronettes' "Do I Love You" and Stevie Wonder's "Where Has My Love Gone" and "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer." The later two were ballads that highlighted Collins remarkably preserved voice.
Short of a quick Genesis reunion tour in 2007, Collins has been largely off the grid since his First Final Farewell Tour six years ago. He maintains it's unlikely he'll ever release a record of original material again, and a severe hand injury makes it highly doubtful he'll be behind the drums should Peter Gabriel ever decide to return to Genesis. All that means this could be his last go-round. If so, it's a real shame. He has a tremendous gift for writing pop songs, and even though the critics have torn him up over the years, does anybody now doubt the brilliance of songs like "In the Air Tonight" and "Against All Odds?"
Towards the end of the night he sang a passionate version of Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Going Back." "I think I'm going back to the things I learned so well in my youth," he sang. "I think I'm returning to the days when I was young enough to know the truth." It was hard to not interpret it a declaration that he's brought his career full circle, and now he plans on quietly walking away from it.