Elvis Costello is nothing if not astute, and he was well aware of the astrological forces at work when he took the stage Wednesday night at Veterans Park in Manchester.
"We're expecting a full eclipse of the moon tonight, so if any of you start growing hair on your palms, let the howling commence," Costello joked after the opening song, "Accidents Will Happen."
But there were no accidents musically as Costello and his band, The Rude Five, ripped through a generous two-hour-plus, 27-song, three-encore set that covered much of his curious 13-year career.
By the end, the moon was nearing total darkness, but it was clear that Costello's star is at its brightest point yet. With a Top Ten American album (Spike), and a hit single ("Veronica"), the English rocker is at the height of his commercial appeal, and his performance last night can only solidify his reputation.
Costello covered acres of musical territory, from soft ballads ("Alison"), to bluesy stomp ("Let Him Dangle"), to neo-New Orleans jazz ("God's Comic"), to rockabilly ("Uncomplicated"). The Rude Five provided sympathetic support for most of the night, but when Costello performed four solo songs midway through the main set, the show didn't lose any momentum.
The crowd got Elvis the crooner. Elvis the rocker, Elvis the comedian, Elvis the entertainer, but through it all there was that amazing, earnest voice, which stayed strong all night and rose above the big sound of his bandmates.
Costello works hard both at his music and at winning over the audience, and his between-songs chatter is always witty, even while hinting at a serious message.
When the set appeared ready to slow down, Costello would wisely switch into an upbeat rocker like "Pads. Paws, and Claws" or "Loveable," but the first set's best moment was arguably "Uncomplicated," a straightforward rocker powered by Pete Thomas' pounding drums and Marc Ribot's and Costello's rockabilly riffs. It was also a pleasure to watch and hear Elvis Presley's old bandmate, Jerry Schell, on both conventional and upright bass, as well as tuba, so it was only appropriate that the band performed "Mystery Dance," a variation on "Jailhouse Rock."
At times there were tubas, trombones and mandolins to augment the basic guitar/bass/drum sound, and most songs had a tight ebb and flow, slowing to a crawl as Costello set the mood, then rising to a total rave-up as he unleashed his emotions.
The final up-tempo workout (on the second encore) was "Pump It Up," driven again by Thomas' savage, simple drumming and Costello's and Ribot's guitar workouts.
All that was left was to await the completion of the lunar eclipse.
"I'll watch the total eclipse of the moon on television," Costello said. "Nothing's really real 'til you see it on television."