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Because Elvis has become an international institution that can communicate across national and cultural boundaries, it comes as no surprise that El Vez -- the self proclaimed "Mexican Elvis" -- has come along. El Vez, aka Robert Lopez, has been kicking around the L.A. underground music scene for nearly twenty years. He first appeared in the early L.A. punk band the Zeros and then played in Catholic Discipline (which also spawned lesbian folk singer Phranc). While his records are excellent documents of the El Vez phenomenon, the only way to get the full El Vez experience is to see his live shows, which feature his band the Spiders from Memphis and the lovely El Vettes, cleverly named Priscilita, Gladysita, Lisa Maria, and Que Linda Thompson.
The best cultural reference points to help describe an El Vez show are the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, a Tom Jones Las Vegas gig, the LSD episode of Dragnet, and Elvis Presley's '68 comeback special. Listening to El Vez is akin to hearing the live-band equivalent of sampling. An audience on any given night can be treated to half a dozen costume changes and might hear bits and pieces of at least 200 songs, not all of them Elvis recordings. For instance, one of his medleys featured "You Ain't Nothing But a Chihuahua" and an instrumental version of the Beastie Boys' "Gratitude," mixed in with the lead guitar riff from Santana's "Black Magic Woman" laid underneath Rod Stewart's "Maggie May," which melded into "En el Barrio" (aka "In the Ghetto") and finished up with the mandolin line that concludes R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion."
Despite his use of humor, El Vez cannot be written off as a post-modern joke. His lyrics (many times rewrites of Elvis recordings or other popular songs) are very political and pro-Latino. Much like Rage Against the Machine, his songs are littered with references to the Zapatistas and other Mexican revolutionaries. Unlike the above-mentioned band, he does not beat the audience over the head with didactic polemics and testosterone-fueled monster chords. Instead, he relies on the obvious play on words ("Say It Loud, I'm Brown and I'm Proud" and "Misery Tren") and clever social satire (at the climax of "Immigration Time" -- sung to the tune of "Suspicious Minds" -- he shouts, "I've got my green card...I want my gold card!"). Based in East Los Angeles, he is involved in anti-gang programs and other community outreach programs -- a refreshing reminder that one doesn't have to lose his or her sense of humor to remain an activist.
On Wednesday, as pine trees lined Manhattan blocks waiting for a visit from the Sanitation Department, El Vez came to Wetlands with his Christmas revue. For El Vez, who bills himself as the Mexican Elvis Presley, there is no better time to celebrate Christmas than after the fact: it gives his show maximum kitsch appeal.
Originally Robert Lopez and formerly a member of the Los Angeles punk band the Zeros, El Vez is not just an Elvis impersonator. He may look and dress like a young Elvis Presley (though Elvis never had El Vez's pencil-thin mustache), and he does sing the occasional Elvis song, but El Vez is his own creation.
Backed by a four-piece band and two female singers at Wetlands, El Vez was vulnerably suave, a cross between a professional crooner, a cheap pickup artist and a shy mother's boy. He let his backup singers make fun of him and even joined them at one point when he looked down at his hiked-up pants and suspenders and referred to himself as "the Mexican Urkel."
El Vez's humorous rock songs, most of them from his sixth album, "Merry Mex-mas" (Sympathy for the Record Industry), brought Christmas carols to the barrio. Poncho and Pedro were added to Blitzen and Vixen in Santa's list of reindeer, and Santa was depicted as sporting a sombrero and cracking castanets.
What made the songs stand out, however, wasn't the narrowness of the stereotypes but the breadth of El Vez's song book. His music was a whirlwind of pop quotations, full of references to the music of David Bowie, Jose Feliciano, Patsy Cline and the punk bands the Stooges and Public Image Limited.
The set's highlight was its most atypical moment, the reading of a poem by El Vez's alter ego, Raul Raul, an angry-young-man poet. As Vince Guaraldi's theme music from the "Peanuts" cartoons played in the background, he decried racism in the Sunday comics with lines like, "Hey Charlie, I'm brown/Por que no Latinos in your stinking town?" Underneath the humor, there was a message. And underneath the message, there was more humor.
Los Straitjackets, a Nashville quartet that performed as an opening act, turned Hispanic culture into a much more empty stage gimmick. The band dressed in Mexican wrestling masks and delivered gibberish mock-Spanish introductions to songs. But the music was great: tight, upbeat rock-and-roll instrumentals indebted to Link Wray, Dick Dale and countless garage bands of the 1950's and 60's. With stiff, sarcastic gestures and flourishes substituting for humorous lyrics, Los Straitjackets stomped through songs like "Caveman" and "Calhoun Surf," full of wet, reverberating guitar lines, long, bent notes and blunt, propulsive drumming.