MANCHESTER — For years, Elvis Costello fans made what sometimes seemed like a diabolical contract whenever they went to see their favorite star.
The deal they offered went down like this — you, Elvis, can put us down, refuse to play our favorite songs, play short sets and generally act like a boor, and we, the fans, will forgive you. Because we love the music.
For those fans who for years were treated to rude behavior from Costello — and enjoyed it — last night's concert in downtown Manchester presented a much better bargain. Costello's 135-minute set took the edge of his personality without taking anything out of his music. replacing the original Angry Young Man of Rock with a smiling, laughing charmer whose songs still pulsed with energy and sarcasm.
Of course, this should come as no surprise who saw Costello described as "The Beloved Entertainer" on his new album — and believed it. The phrase is hard to reconcile with Costello's history, but it fits in perfectly with his present.
Costello was upbeat from the start of last night's show. promising a crowd of about 4500 "a lot of lovely songs" and then delivering with bouncy versions of tunes including "Accidents Will Happen" and "Brilliant Mistake." His set list focused on the funniest and brightest of Costello's material, ignoring downers like "Shipbuilding" and "Tramp The Dirt Down" in favor of whimsical pop tunes.
And the set also included a healthy selection from Costello's collaboration with Paul McCartney, including a solo acoustic version of the unrecorded "So Like Candy" and several songs that appeared on McCartney's album. Those songs offer a nice contrast between McCartney's sentimentality and Costello's bright wit — "I Know You Want Her Too," for instance, is a snappy duet between McCartney as a friendly angel and Costello as a tough-minded devil.
But Costello's humor was most obvious in his treatment of last night's songs. For instance, his only two singalongs came from "God's Comic" and "Let Him Dangle," and Costello seemed to take a perverse pleasure in coaxing fans into repeating "now I'm dead" from the first tune and "let him dangle" from the second.
"God's Comic" also provided a springboard for two other Costello jokes, a snatch of the Monkees' "I'm A Believer" and a hilarious monologue about a God who hates colorized movies and wants to use divorce lawyers for medical experiments.
But there was nothing silly about the musical efforts of Costello and his band, the Rude Five. Costello was in fine form both vocally and on guitar — his voice drifted into a tortured wail on "Poison Rose" and rose to an inspired shout for "Lovable" and "Pump It Up."
The Rude Five, featuring former Attractions drummer Pete Thomas and a funky bassist in Jerry Scheff, turned in jaunty performances for Costello's hardest material.