By Mark Guarino
The schizophrenic classic rock behemoth known as Genesis played the United Center Tuesday and demonstrated that everything about it is writ large.
The number of nights in Chicago: Three. The number of years since forming: 40. The number of albums from which to choose songs: 16. The number of line-ups from which to choose players: Seven. And so forth.
In fact, the only thing short about Genesis is Phil Collins, the band’s lead singer and drummer. His plucky demeanor but fierce drumming skills further impressed that Genesis is, above all things, a force of contradictions. As for any band with a history dipping into five decades (are there any of those left?), there will be a jagged timeline of styles; for this band, that means evasive and complex song suites on one end of the spectrum, and silly and, at times, irritating pop fluff on its opposite. The best stuff, no surprise, is what meets up in the middle.
Collins, bassist/guitarist Mike Rutherford and keyboardist Tony Banks did their best to please. But even a show that lasted a bulked-up two-and-a-half-hours did not seem enough time. This reunion tour also featured Milwaukee native and resident Daryl Stuermer on guitar/bass and Chester Thompson on drums, two players that constituted the touring Genesis for 30 years. This full assembly of players did not attempt to refashion their history together, or cultivate some fresh connections previously unearthed. They simply played to cover all the bases as proficiently as possible.
For fans of the band’s early era, when it served as one of the chief architects of British prog rock, the band shaved a few of those songs into a single four-song suite, kicked off by “In the Cage.” Here, the players worked their hardest, following elaborate song structures that required shifting through contrasting time meters, playing with tricky precision and streaming together the disparate portions for a full, symphonic flourish. Almost to show how much the band’s history fluctuated through the years, those 15 minutes were followed up by “Hold On My Heart,” a sickly latter-day ballad.
Even with the current prog rock revival led by bands like The Decemberists and The Polyphonic Spree, tuneless instrumentals in tricky time signatures did not make these shows sell out. Ticketholders arrived because of pop hits. But surprisingly, the band decided to ignore many of those to favor the more rhythmically intensive portion of its history. That included “Ripples,” a mid-period song played to its full eight minutes, from gentle acoustic guitar strums to watery keyboards. And instead of familiar material like “Misunderstanding” or “That’s All,” there was the intertwined coupling of “Firth of Filth” and “I Know What I like (In Your Wardrobe).”
Despite the deep cuts, Collins performed with a shrug. His audience interaction (including posing the audience many times for his digital camera) was boring, even to him. He rotated between playing drums and strolling with a microphone, handling both on “Follow You Follow Me.” Because of his indifference and the poker faces of his bandmates, the only excitement came from the music.
Between some unfortunate pop choices (“No Son of Mine” but no “Abacab”? “We Can’t Dance” but no “Paperlate”?) and the lengthy nods to the past came one definite high point: The intensive pairing of “Home By The Sea” and its instrumental bookend, “Second Home By the Sea.” There, the players locked into the most intensive grooves of the night, playing harder as if there was no one to please but themselves.