El Vez brings MeX-Mas to First Avenue

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Take one Mexican-American Elvis impersonator from LA, surround him by two busty back-up singer/groupies, support them with four men from Nashville dressed in Luchador wrestling masks, add to the whole shebang with five dead Satanic surf-rockers, and mix well with Americana, pop-culture, politics, and Christmas kitsch. The end result? One hell of a silly-ass time at this year's !Viva Christmas! show at First Avenue on Saturday night. 

The evening's opening act was the relatively mellow local satanic surf-rock band Lusurfer. All decked out in matching black and white Hawaiian shirts, the ghoulish gang of 5 warmed up the mostly over-40 crowd with a number of '60s-style original rockers. In addition to their take on a few classic rock favorites like Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" and their own devilish take on the "Hawaii 5-0" theme song ("Hawaii 666"), a technically taut performance by guitarist Moloch the Manipulator of a thrilling medley featuring an excellent bit of "Crazy Train" finished out their opening set. What was missing were some classic surf-rock covers ("Pipeline" or "Run, Don't Walk" were nowhere to be found) or some zombie singers to provide vocals. Otherwise, a fun warm up to the ensuing insanity of the main act.

It's really hard to sum up all that is El Vez in a brief live review, but his act is part-comedy (joking more between songs than singing them) and part-musical performance. His set was highlighted mainly by his ability to mix Christmas tunes with songs by James Brown ("Santa's Gotta a Brand New Bag"), '80s Rap ("Jingle Bell Rock" mixed with "White Lines"), '90s Rock ("En El Barrio": A mix of "O' Holy Night" and "Champaign Supernova," or in this case a "Suped-Up Chevy Nova") and a multitude of musical lines pulled from Velvet Underground, the Beatles and many more. The silliness, comedy, and creative songwriting was tossed at the audience one song after the next, joke after joke, one wardrobe change after another, and the gaps were filled in nicely by his co-horts the Elvettes, Lisa Maria and Priscilita.

With all those costume changes, Los Straitjackets played a starring role in the evening's events -- they kept the show going while the three singers were off stage (they constantly donned new outfits that they'd inevitably just rip off themselves within two or three songs). Headed by the only member of the four-piece who speaks (El Vez constantly referred to him as his interpreter), "Daddy-O Grande" would often give updates as to what was going on in poorly pronounced Spanish. The band's sound, when not backing El Vez's tunes, is rooted in '60s style rockabilly and surf-rock. Like Lusurfer, Los Straitjackets are a technically gifted band and provide a fun gimmick for their music, but really only thrive while backing a band with singers. 

To begin the enore, Los Straitjackets provided some phenominal improvisational workouts to match El Vez's improvised comedy by playing some great surf-rock tunes, Christmas covers and even had a jazzy duel between guitarist Eddie Angel (who can coax an amazing chicken sound from his ax) and drummer "Teen Beat." Finally coming out for the last number, after five Los Straight Jacket tunes to kill time, El Vez and the Elvettes came back on stage decked out in their own versions of Luchador masks, accompanied by gigantic inflated versions of Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman. With El Vez being accosted by these two oversized icons of Christmas, he did his best to finish the night with a soaring punk-rock version of "Feliz Navidad." In all, it was a great spin on the American Christmas showcase, but this time it was MeX-Mas, headed by a loopy Elvis and supported by Luchadors and zombie surfers. In other words, a whole lot of fun for a Saturday night.

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