Confusion is nothing new concerning the hometown of Robert Lopez, a.k.a. 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 that concluded at the Casbah on Saturday: "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 earlier this month 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."