Anyone who’s ever set foot on stage knows there comes a moment in each performance when an entertainer can lose himself.
In a tide of emotion, the performance ceases to be about entertainment and evolves into the creation of something uniquely beautiful. The lucky stumble into this and the true artists learn to channel it.
For Tommy El that moment came Friday night in Baltimore as he knelt, trembling and sweating beneath a Lithuanian flag, clutching a red, white and blue scarf to his quivering lips, eyes closed and ears open. Open to hear the roar of the crowd.
And roar they did, several hundred in fact, who flocked to the 14th annual ‘Night of 100 Elvises’ in Baltimore Friday night to witness a rare spectacle as schlock mimicry metamorphosed into undeniable art.
The setting for the two-day event was the Lithuanian Hall off Lombard Street – a site I soon realized was so perfectly “Baltimore” that my initial doubts gave way to an understanding that there could be no better place in the city for 100 Elvises to converge.
And converge they did, en mass, to hit the stage one-by-one in a 16-hour, two-day spectacle in which, purportedly, no Elvis Presley tune was repeated by any of the dozens of acts involved.
Where to begin. Let’s see, there was Johnny P, who sang a gospel so soulful that he concluded it by decreeing that, “Now nobody’s got to go to church tomorrow.”
An older, perhaps slightly jaded, Elvis E tossed out subtlety and innuendo and simply announced over the microphone what he’d like the audience to do.
“Come get scarves,” he demanded (pleaded?)
There were fat Elvises, old Elvises, bald Elvises, foreign Elvises. Elvises who looked like Elvis and Elvises who didn’t. There was an Elvis carved entirely of ice. An Elvis with female reproductive organs. There were Elvises who dyed their hair and Elvises who didn’t. There were magnificently mutton-chopped Elvises and luxuriously caped Elvises. There were Elvises who played guitar and Elvises who pretended to.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the performance of Jed Duvall, who had the unenviable task of being the first ‘real’ Elvis impersonator of the night to take the stage (Full Disclosure: about a month earlier this same Jed Duvall made a special appearance at my wedding. As Elvis, of course).
Perhaps the biggest buzz of the night surrounded the performance of Flipside – the alt rock cover band fronted by 105.7 FM WHFS radio personality Maynard. Their short set was introduced by former Baltimore City Police Commissioner-turned-radio talk show host, Ed Norris, who was repeatedly thanked by random people for having “done a hell of a job” when he was with Baltimore police. He must get a lot of that.
Norris, clad in leather and accompanied by a funny, yet brutish bodyguard, hung out around the bar listening to the performances, but retreated to the backstage area during Johnny P’s rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Maynard entered the hall to great fanfare and began belting out “C.C. Ryder” before cutting the song off about halfway through and trading up for a ripping version of “Trouble (aka Evil).”
Although he’ll deny the conversation ever took place, Maynard confided offstage afterward that he’d like “to kill” his drummer, who is the doppelganger of Maryland State Lottery director Buddy Roogow, for apparently missing some sort of onstage signal during their set.
If Maynard and Norris were the celebrities, the true star of the night was Drew Ahearn – a pint-sized Presley who soared through a couple of the King’s classics and got the crowd on their feet singing and dancing.
Drew, who stood about three-and-a-half feet tall, was encouraged by a woman at the front of the stage who hopefully was his mother. I experienced slight discomfort watching the mother-son interactions and wondering whether the littlest Ahearn was a fully willing participant in deciding to don the white cape and belt out the Elvis tunes. There was also the matter of the other little boy tagging along with mother and son Ahearn, who I can only hope, if he is a sibling of Drew’s, has some sort of amazing talent or ability to match his brother’s voice.
Through all that, it was Tommy El who held my attention. The middle-aged, crooner aped the ‘later years’ Elvis and appeared to sleepwalk through the early portion of his four-song set. After fumbling the words to his karaoke versions of a couple familiar tunes, Tommy El turned his night around with a stirring rendition of Presley’s “American Trilogy.”
Wrapping himself in a red, white and blue scarf, Tommy powered through the lines to ‘Dixie,’ recited the ‘Pledge of Allegiance,’ delivered a devastating roundhouse kick into thin air and ended his set crumpled on the stage – head in hand and utterly drained of emotion.
True, most of that drained emotion had been sopped up by the American flag scarf Tommy tossed into the crowd, but the emotion that hadn’t streamed down his forehead was transferred to his audience. To me.
In another life, 8 years ago maybe, I spent a Friday night up on the same stage, under the same Lithuanian flag, pouring my heart out through a microphone and amplifier just as Tommy El had.
Sure, maybe I hadn’t worn a belt that would have seemed more in place around the waist of a world wrestling champion, maybe I wasn’t wearing my cape on that particular night and maybe I styled my hair into a mohawk rather than a thick, black mane. But if I brought as much to the stage as Tommy El had, then I might have been lucky enough to have transcended entertainer to become, however briefly, an artist.
Friday was a night of Elvis, for sure, but for me it was affirmation that it is possible to achieve art and beauty in everything. Even if it’s wearing a rhinestone-studded cape.