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. ~ Kembrew McLeod