El Vez blends music, politics, hot pants — and the holiday spirit
El Vez, “the Mexican Elvis,” is driving around Los Angeles looking for snow.
“I’m trying to find a snowy backdrop for my photos with Santa at the show,” says El Vez, a k a Robert Lopez. “The only ones I can find in Hollywood are plastic ones that look like bricks. I want blue sky and a snow scene. I want something that looks like a ‘Mad Men’ cigarette ad. It’s the details!”
An El Vez show ages ago in a small club remains one of my all-time favorite concerts partly because of that attention to detail. Original music and re-engineered covers blend in a potent show that’s both socially conscious and entertaining spectacle. The performance I saw boasted conquistador costumes, intelligent theatricality, a wicked wit and a serious understanding of and reverence for rock history.
Seriously, an Elvis impersonator — but he’s not, and that’s the point.
A swift musical satirist in the guise of a pompadoured Elvis figurine, Lopez’ El Vez act reworks the King’s catalog (“You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Chihuahua,” “Misery Tren”) as well as many others (“Say It Loud, I’m Brown and I’m Proud”). In El Vez’ hands, Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” becomes “Immigration Time” and often segues into a winking cover of Kim Wilde’s ’80s hit “Kids in America.” In addition to his subtitle as the Mexican Elvis, El Vez has also been called the Thin Brown Duke (and once opened for Bowie).
“I’ve found you can meld all these points of view and go back and forth from the political to the spiritual, all wrapped up in the rock-star homage that El Vez is,” Lopez says. “Blurring the lines makes it work. I can sing about Cesar Chavez and still wear gold lame hot pants.”
Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Lopez’ El Vez act. A visual artist before he was a performance artist, Lopez had hired an Elvis impersonator for a gallery opening and spent the night criticizing his performance, vowing to do it better. Lopez remains active in theater, spending half the year working with Seattle’s circus-like Teatro ZinZanni (which, Lopez says, still plans on opening a Chicago outpost).
The El Vez holiday show hasn’t toured in a few years, and this year includes the usual twisted Christmas covers (his “Feliz Navidad” incorporates the music from PiL’s “Unlimited Supply”), including a Neko Case song. That cover of “Loretta” from the ’04 live album Case cut with the Sadies? “I made it about Santa Claus,” Lopez says.
Of course he did. Sign up for Santa those photos with El Vez at elvez.net.
Here’s a run-down of other selected Christmas concert fare:
The Blind Boys of Alabama — Get into the real spirit of the season with this 70-year-old vocal wonder and their “Go Tell It on the Mountain: The Blind Boys of Alabama Christmas Show.” Dec. 8 at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph. Tickets: $38-$45. (312) 733-WINE; citywinery.com.
Brendan Bayliss & Jake Cinninger — The two soundposts of jam-rock band Umphrey’s McGee celebrate their 10th anniversary of these holiday benefit shows. 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 at Park West, 322 W. Armitage. Tickets: $25. (800) 514-ETIX; jamusa.com.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra — The seasonal prog-rock franchise has assembled a new spectacle called “The Lost Christmas Eve.” 3 and 8 p.m. Dec. 8 at Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim in Rosemont. Tickets: $30-$69. (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com.
Milly’s Holiday Spectacular — Brigid “Milly” Murphy has been hosting Milly’s Orchid Show for 25 years now, and now she tames the rowdy fun for a “family style” performance. 3:30 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N Lincoln. Tickets: $20-$22. (773) 728-6000; oldtownschool.org.
The Polyphonic Spree — The alt-rock choir’s 10th annual holiday extravaganza this year supports an ambitious holiday album, “Holidaydream: Sounds of the Holidays, Vol. 1.” 6 p.m. Dec. 11 at Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie. Tickets: $18. (866) 777-8932; ticketweb.com.
The Surfjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-a-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice — On the heels of another massive Christmas-music collection, indie-rock’s Sufjan Stevens returns with his audience-participation holiday hootenanny. 8:30 p.m. Dec. 15 at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. Sold out.
Brave Combo Holiday Dance Party — Our favorite rockin’ polka-cha-cha-zydeco band is back for their annual boogie-buster holiday concert. 9 p.m. Dec. 15 at FitzGerald’s, 6615 Roosevelt in Berwyn. Tickets: $15. (866) 777-8932; ticketweb.com.
Andrew Bird — The indie-pop whistler has established these lovely annual Gezelligheid Concerts as an elegant new holiday tradition. 8 p.m. Dec. 19-21 at Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut. Sold out.
The Siegel-Schwall Band — Corky Siegel and Jim Schwall were part of the blues revival of the 1960s, and here they are again with two dedicated Christmas concerts. 8 p.m. Dec. 15 at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St. ($28-31; 773-445-3838; beverlyartcenter.org) and 8 p.m. Dec. 21 at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse ($20-$30; 866-777-8932; ticketweb.com).