How the king of rock 'n' roll still makes Australia sing

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How the king of rock 'n' roll still makes Australia sing
Vintage cars on a blocked-off street at the Parkes Elvis Festival, in Parkes, Australia, April 23, 2022. The King of Rock ’n’ Roll never played a concert Down Under, but that hasn’t stopped tens of thousands of Australians from making him their own at the annual festival. Abigail Varney/The New York Times.

by Damien Cave

PARKES.- The Elvis Presley from Japan bowed with quiet respect. Then he tore into a rendition of “Burning Love” that sounded straight out of Memphis, Tennessee, and that definitely stretched the crotch of his blue jumpsuit to the limit.

Backstage, a few more “Elvi” — the plural of Elvis, at least at the largest Elvis festival in the Southern Hemisphere — were going over final song choices, sweating their options for a crowd that blurred the line between fans and impersonators. Thousands of Elvi were out there in the middle of Australia, ages 5 to 85, with more pompadours and leisure suits than anyone could count.

“God, it’s so many people,” said Charles Stone, Elvis’ tour manager from 1971 until his death in 1977, surveying the scene with a gold chain peeking outside his T-shirt. “Look at this.”

Parkes, a small town a five hours’ drive from Sydney, now shines once a year with Elvis sequins and rhinestones. Around 25,000 people usually join the festival, which started out with a couple of restaurant owners trying to bring a little less conversation and a little more action into Parkes.

That was back in 1993. Nearly 30 years later, the festival has become a national treasure that exemplifies how Australians tend to do a lot of things: all together, with self-deprecating humor and copious amounts of alcohol.

This year’s event — after COVID-19 forced a cancellation in 2021 — felt somehow more Elvis-like than ever. A certain heaviness mixed with the thrill of rock ’n’ roll. From tiny pubs with first-time singers to golf courses and rugby pitches where games were played in matching Elvis gear — and, of course, to the main stages, where the world’s top tribute artists could be found — there was a craving for post-lockdown, post-pandemic release.

What is life even for, many of them yelled over the music, if not for a dress-up-and-let-go, yank-each-other-up-on-stage-and-SING sense of abandon?

“It lets us forget everything,” said Gina Vicar, 61, a small-business owner from Melbourne who had come to the festival with a dozen friends. “With all that we’ve gone through and what the world is going through now, it’s great to see all this joy.”

When we met, she had just shouted encouragement to an Elvis (real name, Deon Symo) who had announced that he was only 21 and from Adelaide, a city often joked about and rarely celebrated.

He was wearing a white jumpsuit as he stood in front of a red curtain held up with rubber bands in a pub with sticky floors — and the crowd treated him like a Las Vegas superstar. Two women a decade or two his senior danced in front, mouthing the words to every song.

“He’s got a great voice,” Vicar said. “He just needs the confidence.”

All over Parkes, from Wednesday to Sunday, Elvi won over the Elvis faithful.

Toki Toyokazu, the singer from Sendai, Japan, was a crowd favorite; he won the festival’s formal competition in 2020, and his return seemed to signal a post-COVID-19 milestone.

Another performer, “Bollywood Elvis,” wearing a gold jumpsuit featuring faux gems the size of Waffle House biscuits, also seemed to pop up whenever energy flagged. His real name was Alfred Vaz. He moved to Australia from what was then Bombay in 1981, when he was a manager for Air India, and he said he had been coming to Parkes since the festival began. This year, he brought his nephew, Callum Vincent, 24, a music teacher from Perth, who smiled as he took it all in.

“There’s only one Elvis,” Vaz, 65, said Saturday morning as the festival’s parade began. “There are a lot of pretenders and a lot of contenders, but there’s only one Elvis.”

Except in Parkes, a former mining town in a country where Elvis never actually played a concert.

A few minutes earlier, the mayor and the area’s local member of Parliament had driven by, sitting on the back of a convertible wearing ’70s jumpsuits along with wigs and sunglasses. Vicar and her friends walked in the parade alongside, well, the full range of Elvi.

A few of the Elvis outfits on dad bods looked pretty rundown or were ripped in unfortunate places. These were mostly the rugby Elvi, who had gathered Friday night for an annual match between the Elvis-inspired “Blue Suede Shoes” and the “Ready Teddys.”

Doug Moore, 41, officially the water boy — which meant pouring bags of wine down the gullets of winded players — told me they were enlisted early on in the festival’s history to build support by wearing the same Elvis outfit for the entire festival weekend.

Tiffany Steel, the festival director and daughter of the founders, Bob and Anne Steel, confirmed their instrumental role. In 2007, they helped get the Parkes festival into Guinness World Records: 147 Elvi gathered to sing “Love Me Tender,” breaking the previous record of 78 for the “largest gathering of Elvis Presley impersonators.”

“When you’re from a town like this,” said Moore, a project manager, fixing a wig that went along with a skintight outfit, including a cape, “you just have to get into it.”

Americans these days seem a little less willing. Stone, Elvis’ former concert manager, said growth in “Elvis culture” now came mostly from outside the King’s home country.

Taylor Rodriguez, 24, an American from Lynchburg, Virginia, who was crowned the 2019 Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist Champion by Elvis Presley Enterprises, noted that in the United States, dressing up was often seen as disrespectful to Elvis’ legacy. In America, everything seems to be more serious, while in Australia, failing to join in for a laugh is still the bigger sin.

“I don’t think there’s a festival back home that compares to Parkes,” Rodriguez said. “Here, it’s pure — it’s pure fun. It’s just for the love of Elvis."

Or maybe it’s the mix of expertise and friendly amateur hour that actually make it special.

On Friday night, Rodriguez played songs from Elvis’ 1960s movies for a packed house at the Parkes Leagues Club — a musty midcentury marvel with seating for 600, wood-paneled walls and a painting of a giant satellite dish beside the stage. (The dish is Parkes’ other claim to fame. It helped transmit footage of the 1969 U.S. moon landing to the world.)

The next night, after the parade, Rodriguez produced a 1970s Elvis extravaganza with a historian’s attention to detail. He entered through the crowd, and at one point, with MStone onstage beside him, he tossed silk scarves to fans one by one, just as Elvis had done.

But when a young boy not much older than he was when he started performing as the King (at age 9) tried to grab one, he broke character. Bending down, wearing a suit with a giant collar that matched what Elvis wore during a concert broadcast on TV from Honolulu in 1973, he guided the scarf toward the boy and offered a message that everyone, considering the pandemic past and uncertain future, needed to hear: “Follow your dreams.”

Then he stood up, nodded to the band and kept going.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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