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Friday, December 18, 2009

Last Night: El Vez at the Independent

Posted By on Fri, Dec 18, 2009 at 9:15 AM

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El Vez, Los Straightjackets
Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009
The Independent

Better than:
Elvis impersonators who don't speak Spanish.

El Vez is, in many ways, a role model for the importance of the live event in the music industry. The punk rocker-turned-underground-musical-theater star has spent years turning his stage shows into big productions. His merch table is stacked with memorabilia (t-shirts, posters from when he "ran for president" in the last election). His performance is stocked with costume changes (that go big in the glitter department, and then go small in the covering-the-body department). And his musical numbers move so quickly he's on to the next idea before the last one has completely finished wrapping up.

This formula seems to work well for "The Thin Brown Duke," as last night's "Viva Christmas" special jam-packed the house with fans calling out his name. The biggest flaw, however, was the most glaring one: the music itself, presented with the help of Nashville's Los Straightjackets, lagged by the middle of the show, the surf rock versions of holiday tunes not as clever as El Vez's usual musical montages.

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It was too bad, too, because there was much to dazzle otherwise in the show. El Vez's two backup singers, the candy-striped costumed The Evlettes, were in top shape both vocally and physically. This was important because the 90-minute show was a full aerobic workout, with the trio performing choreographed dance moves, running on and off the stage for costume changes, and otherwise making the night feel like Vegas on the cheap. Behind them, Los Straightjackets glittered under the stage lights from behind sparkly Mexican wrestling masks.

There's something about instrumental surf rock, though, that gets monotonous, and every time the band covered a Christmas classic in that style, the momentum El Vez was building shifted back into low gear.

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It was better hearing his silly banter become clever musical blends of divergent genres. Like when El Vez talked about his birthday--which he claimed is December 25th, the same day as "JC, Justin Timberlake," and a night when his mother saw a "champagne supernova in the sky." From there, a high energy "Silent Night" morphed for a couple minutes into Oasis' "Champange Supernova." Another entertaining bridge came later, when El Vez pouted about his lack of presents until he showed off the gifts he'd given himself--a giant El Vez shirt and a "diamond" ring--which led, for far too brief a time, to a nod at Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)."

Those twists on expectations also happened within the holiday songs themselves. A "song about Christmas cheer," threw in multiple Santa and powdered white references. El Vez and the Elvettes pantomimed chopping and snorting a little holiday flake, throwing a little "White Lines" into "Jingle Bell Rock."

If only there were more of those moments, though. The surf Christmas songs pushed the performance into schtick--a place El Vez has avoided in the past by being highly creative with his camp. Perhaps he needed more pop culture peppering the show, more bits to put the Christmas special in the present day and give it an edge. I left wishing there had been as many surprises in the songs as there'd been with the costumes.

Critic's Notebook

By the way
: El Vez took a moment mid-show to sing happy birthday to Penelope Houston of the Avengers, an early San Francisco punk band that was a peer to El Vez's Los Angeles punk act The Zeroes in the late '70s. Unfortunately, it seemed Houston wasn't in the crowd last night. El Vez shook his head after the birthday shout-out and announced, "She had four guests and didn't show up. Very punk rock."

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Ian S. Port


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