By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
!Don't you step on my huaraches azules!
The line that divides style and shtick can be razor-thin, and if you introduce the Elvis Dimension it can be buried completely beneath deep drifts of Velveeta. It would be a mistake, however, to lump Los Angeles artist El Vez (nee Robert Lopez) in with the likes of Dave "Elvis" Tapley or dismiss him altogether, if indeed those are two different things.
Lopez--who played with SoCal punk bands like the Zeros and Catholic Discipline as a callow youth--has a major Elvis thang working, to be sure, but it's mixed with a love of British glam-rock like T. Rex and David Bowie (especially Bowie, who shares his birthday with the King). His most recent album, G.I. Ay, Ay! Blues, complete with El Vez on the cover in full Presley-in-Germany Army-issue dress, follows the El Vez formula, mixing in a healthy dose of politics (the album is subtitled "Soundtrack for the coming Revolution") and non-Elvis influences. In fact, the man is less a stylistic mixing bowl and more a chipper-shredder, taking influences wherever he finds them, tearing them apart and pasting them back together, and garnishing them with a heapin' helpin' of the King.
Thus, you get the empowerment anthem/James Brown lift of "Say It Loud! I'm Brown and I'm Proud!" and John Lennon's "Power to the People," which drifts in and out of Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." He reworks the Presley canon to his own ends as well: "Mystery Train" becomes "Misery Tren," the chorus' "Sixteen coaches long" replaced with singalike "de la Revolucion"; "Viva Las Vegas" emerges as "Viva La Raza." The funniest cut on the album is "Takin' Care of Business," the Bachman Turner Overdrive's 1974 hit reworked from the point of view of an undocumented laborer ("We get up every morning, from the alarm clock's warning/do the menial jobs that run this city"). The most ambitious is the disc-closing medley "Mexican-American Trilogy," which takes parts from "Dixie," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Jesus Christ Superstar, "C.C. Rider," and David Bowie's "Rock & Roll Suicide" and turns them into an over-the-top tribute to El Vez's home in East L.A. and lowrider culture in general.
Such multi-cultural madness comes naturally to El Vez, who grew up speaking English and thinking that Elvis was Latino because he looked like his uncles in their pegged pants and slicked-back hair. Live, he appreciates the place where glam and Fat Elvis-era showmanship intersect, employing a large female backup group, numerous costume changes, and sequins, sequins, sequins. His high-energy histrionics and tomfoolery are worthy of a rock opera, and while his show might have a thousand reference points, it--like the man himself--refuses to be tied down to any of them. !Viva La Revolucion!
El Vez plays the Orbit Room Saturday, January 11.