Robert "El Vez" Lopez: Guitar (acoustic), Guitar (electric), Vocals

Genre: Covers | Standards, Latin | Tejano, Rock

Sound description: 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.

RIYL: Elvis Presley, Ruben and the Jets, Frank Zappa

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Synoposis

Inception: San Diego, 1995

Current Status: Still performing constantly, but now based in L.A.

Influences: Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Englebert Humperdink, Vibro Champs, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Zeros

Background:

Because Elvis has become an international institution who 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 20 years. He first appeared in the early San Diego/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. 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 postmodern 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!").

-- MySpace biography by Kembrew McLeod

Confusion is nothing new concerning the hometown of Robert Lopez, aka El Vez. Before starting his Mexican-American "Elvis translator" persona in the late '80s, Lopez co-fronted West Coast punk pioneers the Zeros in the mid-'70s while all were San Diego County high schoolers. Yet, most reference sources list the South Bay teens -- dubbed "the Mexican Ramones" -- as an "early L.A. punk band."

Lopez has added to the muddle with his "East L.A. is my hometown" stage banter that sets up "En El Barrio," a Chicano-ized rewrite of Presley's "In the Ghetto." One doctored song where Lopez as El Vez gets autobiographically real, however, was highlighted throughout his "Merry Mex-Mas" national tour at the Casbah: "I'm dreaming of a 'Brown Christmas'/ Just like my ones in San Diego/ Where cousins and familia are tight/ And thank God our Christmases ain't white...."

That tune and others were rapturously received at an earlier stop in Philadelphia -- which has its own "Home of El Vez" claim. Lopez and his Memphis Mariachis worked the World Café Live room while patrons munched on free guacamole and chips provided by a Mexican eatery named El Vez (after the performer), which opened in 2003. "[Restaurateur] Stephen Starr's vision of "Tijuana-on-the-Schuylkill" may just be his best concept yet," reviewed the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2004, referencing the river that borders the Pennsylvania city west of the Delaware. "The big room is electric with color, energy, and kitsch."

Starr, a former concert promoter, has had El Vez come play his restaurant and dance on the bar top while people sipped pomegranate margaritas and scarfed mahimahi tacos amid the gilded lowrider accoutrements. "We wanted to have some fun with El Vez," says Starr of the restaurant. "We've tried to achieve a gritty East L.A. meets a Tijuana Taxi vibe."

"I love Philadelphia because you make me feel at home, and because of the El Vez restaurant, it's my home too," cooed Lopez from the Philly stage. Later, by e-mail, El Vez the entertainer elaborated on the relationship: "We have a business deal. I was paid nicely. We do things together sometimes, like Cinco de Mayo block parties for the restaurant. I was shown layouts and design before they were starting.... [Starr] liked the name and was a fan."

-- "Blurt," 12-28-06

Discography

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