- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Jennifer Xu, Magazine Editor
Published July 16, 2012
The first time I heard “Blue Suede Shoes” wasn’t on iTunes, Pandora or YouTube. It was sung live on an Ypsilanti bandstand by a 20-year-old Elvis Presley impersonator named Nick Miller. He was pretty good.
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Who knew that Ypsi played host to “one of the largest Elvis festivals in the world?” Not I! I found out about Michigan ElvisFest – now in its 13th year of existence – through one of those free alternative weeklies you get at the public library. Having never consciously heard an Elvis Presley song in my life, I was curious.
Introduction to the King
ElvisFest can best be described as a lo-fi affair. Whereas music festivals like Bonnaroo and Pitchfork promise a weekend of blistering auditory overload, ElvisFest boasts just one soundstage with an audience mostly comprised of people my grandparents’ age amicably sitting in beach chairs.
Particularly noticeable about the festival was the lack of Elvis memorabilia. Sure, there were the usual suspects – cardboard stars with sayings like “King of Rock‘n’Roll” and “You never walked in that man’s shoes,” Elvis soup tureens, car carpets, life-sized cutouts, sunglasses with furry sideburns waggling from the frames. But the merchandise was mostly sold by one or two small vendors, and there didn’t seem to be the mad dash to actually purchase the wares like, say, after a rock concert, where the most ardent fans will swarm toward the merch counter like ants protecting their queen. At ElvisFest, the main attraction, for most of the attendees, was the music.
And wow, was the music something. Large and sweaty, Elvis impersonator Robert Washington crooned lovely somethings in a tight, white tasseled jumpsuit to the screaming ladies below him. Tall, tanned Matt King, gold buttons festooned on a black jumpsuit and matching cape, pinwheeled across the stage in a nonstop paroxysm of adrenaline. My friend, herself an avid Elvis fan, told me her favorite artist of the night was University alum Chris Ayotte, who not only managed to flawlessly recreate classic Elvis moves but also put his own spin on them (she tried to explain one to me – something to do with a curtain?).
A giggly group of retirees in cerulean Hawaiian shirts and plastic flowers in their hair from Columbus, Ohio, stayed up by the stage the entire night, extending their hands each time an Elvis threw down a scarf or bent to give them a kiss. They were so enthusiastic that the emcee dubbed them “Girls Gone Wild 1965.”
The festival was occasionally bracketed by accompanying acts riding on the coattails of the Elvis fanaticism permeating the park. A lukewarm “Great Balls of Fire” was sung by a Jerry Lee Lewis impersonator, which nobody paid much attention to. There’s a reason why there aren’t many Jerry Lee Lewis tribute festivals in the world.
I was drawn to a pair of ladies in matching sun hats, wearing floor-length cloth skirts with Elvis heads embossed on the fabric (one blue, one red): Phyllis Sanders and her granddaughter Maria. Though Phyllis had been a proud attendee of almost every ElvisFest since its inception, it was Maria’s first time. She said her favorite Elvis songs were “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Jailhouse Rock,” but she couldn’t really choose. “I just love them all,” she said.
I spoke to them right after King finished up, ending his set by tossing out dark scarves to the audience beneath him. “I was sad you didn’t get one,” Maria said to her grandmother. “That’s OK, I’ve gotten them before,” she replied cheerfully.
Sanders couldn’t sit still for the entirety of the festival, pumping her fist to the rat-tat-tat of the beat, grooving to each guitar lick. She said she saw Elvis live three times when she was a little girl but was so far away from the stage she needed binoculars.