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The Multiculti Cult

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Those conspiracy theorists worried about the U.N. establishing a nefarious one-world government may as well give up the game. If Tuesday night’s goings-on at the House of Blues are any indication, the people of Earth are already under the sway of a unifying force--a single, jump-suited monarch named Elvis.

The 20th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death is approaching, and the nightclub marked that milestone by staging a “To Hellvis and Back” night, featuring sets by the Vietnamese Elvis, Elvis Phuong, and the Mexican Elvis, El Vez. The bill’s title seemed to promise a campy tweaking of all things Presley, but the evening was in fact both an affecting tribute to a master entertainer and an exuberant celebration of some great rock ‘n’ roll.

Many rock fans have come to consider Elvis a kind of joke deity, with particular attention paid to his final years as a bloated caricature of himself. But remember--it all started with music, and in his early years Presley was the Marilyn Manson of his time, shocking the sensibilities of square America and eliciting angry attacks that his “devil rhythms” would lead to a mixing of the races and juvenile delinquency. This evening was light-hearted in spirit, but the music was given due respect. And while we may no longer be shocked by Elvis tunes or Elvis-style hip shakes, properly executed, both can still fire up a crowd.

One might expect that a pair of Elvis impersonators would attract a multitude of big-bellied guys with oversized shades and sideburns, but there was not a pompadour in sight. Instead, the club was filled with a rather remarkable rainbow coalition of Elvis fans: Elvis Phuong attracted a large Asian contingent, the East L.A.-born El Vez pulled in Latino fans, and folks in leathers, tie-dye and office clothes stood side by side to receive the music of the King.

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Phuong didn’t much look the part as he took the stage--his black military jacket and black leather trousers seemed a little more David Copperfield than Elvis. But as soon as he opened his mouth, there it was--Elvis’ smooth-as-Brylcreem baritone croon.

Backed by a competent five-piece band, Phuong worked through plenty of hits in respectful, straightforward fashion, even ending each with Elvis’ trademark profession of gratitude, a softly slurred “Thankyouverymuch.” Occasionally, Phuong’s set approached the cheesiness of a cruise-ship revue--medleys just aren’t a good idea with Presley’s music--but his Elvisized rendering of “Unchained Melody” was impassioned enough to garner a few bouquets of roses from the crowd.

The evening fully hit its stride, and came closest to an El-visitation, when Mr. Vez began working the stage.

If the original Elvis could borrow from Southern blues and country-western music to create an all-American hybrid, why can’t a kid from the barrio borrow from the King to create rock with a Mexican spirit? That’s the musical question asked by the high-spirited El Vez, and it was answered splendidly this night. Backed by the excitable, guitar-driven sounds of his Memphis Mariachis, and flanked by the Elvettes--Priscillita and Lisa Maria--El Vez was an irresistible front man, kicking, leaping and clowning his way through a set of decidedly altered Presley tunes.

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“Burning Love” was modified with the help of some Hendrix licks and Doors lyrics to become “Caliente Amor,” “Heartbreak Hotel” was transformed into “Quetzalcoatl,” and “Hound Dog” became, of course, “Chihuahua.” His band even managed the high-concept feat of turning Paul Simon’s wry “Graceland” into a celebration of “Aztlan.”

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El Vez’s show wasn’t merely Mex-Elvis shtick though. A vein of serious political consciousness came through, and when he turned the rousing “Viva Las Vegas” into “Viva La Raza,” it was clearly not strictly for yuks.

But the performer’s good-natured stage presence never allowed his musical messages to seem heavy. And while his voice couldn’t quite replicate the mellifluous tones of his inspiration, his energetic, off-the-wall showmanship seemed closer in spirit to Presley’s early rock ‘n’ roll shows than the work of more imitative Elvis-ites.

Twenty years after Elvis left the planet, it would seem that all the parody and homage, tributes and takeoffs, have finally coalesced into one singular hunk of burning goodwill toward the King. The world of Elvis impersonators can be a little creepy, but the crowd left this show smiling and, quite possibly, uplifted.

As we hurtle toward a new millennium, it’s reassuring to cling to a few pop verities--you don’t step on blue suede shoes, you know where to check in if your baby leaves you, and, if you’re lonesome tonight, you know Elvis still wants to comfort you. There’s also the possibility that the world might be a happier home if we all strived to be a lot less Hound Dog and a little more King-like. As El Vez so aptly suggested toward the end of his set, “Think globally, act Elvis-ly.”


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