During the song "Carl Perkins' Cadillac," Drive-By Truckers songwriter Mike Cooley counsels a young Elvis: "Making money you can't spend ain't what being dead's about." But if Elvis' soul had corroded and cracked long before he hit that bathroom floor in 1977, his spirit continues to inspire, just as much of his 849-song catalog still sounds vibrant decades after it was cut. For the 10th consecutive year, Elvisfest offers the Triangle a way to celebrate that legacy, to let loose with some hip shaking in the dead of winter in honor of the PB&B's inventor.
Long a two-stage staple of Local 506 and the neighboring Carolina Sports Bar (most recently called Shorty's), the sports bar's recent closure and the single-stage size of Local 506 has driven the celebration from West Franklin Street east into the Holiday Inn on U.S. 15-501. The hotel's Time-Out Sports Bar & Grill offers even more room for the two-day festival, and organizers are building a temporary second stage for the Inn's separate, enclosed patio bar. Over the weekend, 20 bands will play those stages.
"I live in fear the whole motel will rise up against us," says Dave Quick of the sometimes-rowdy affair. Quick also founded Heavy Rebel Weekend, the annual Triangle wheels-and-rock convocation. "They say they've had raucous stuff there before, and they're prepared for it. I have to take them at their word."
Quick's trepidation is understandable. Like its cousin, Sleazefest, the King's legendary indulgence sets a ribald tone, from the audience to the bands, who are required to cover at least a pair of Presley tracks during their set. And the crowds seem ready to line up this year: According to Don Eason—the former owner of Carolina Sports Bar who's now employed by Holiday Inn's Time-Out—Elvisfest's bloc of rooms has already sold out.
"I expect to turn people away [from the show]," says Eason, who has attended every Elvisfest and played in Quick's band, TCB '56, at several Elvisfests. "When you have that many rooms booked, that's 150-200 people coming from out of town. So if local yokels are coming, they better get there."
Quick sounds a bit chagrined to admit he isn't doing anything special to celebrate the spectacle's 10th anniversary. He's still on what he calls an "experimental footing" with the new venue, so he's playing it conservatively this year. With that in mind, we've done the work for him, collecting fond reminiscences of past Elvisfests. We start with Quick himself, whose band plays a set of Sun Sessions Presley songs as a drum-less, three-piece combo on Friday night.
Most of my favorite memories revolve around the band Psychocharger, because they're so out to lunch. Every year they do something completely different. One year they dressed as gorillas—the Planet of the Apes remake had just come out—and played the entire set in the gorilla suits. Another time they got [anatomically correct] male blow-up dolls, cut them open and wore them like costumes. There's no smiling or anything on their part. They just play the songs, which makes it even funnier.
He also hails the band Billy Joe Winghead from Oklahoma City, Okla.: One of them works in a butcher shop out there, and usually brings a turducken, which is a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken. They also bring a chainsaw they use to slice the thing up and serve it to the crowd while they're playing.
Winghead frontman John Manson calls Elvisfest one of his year's high points, along with Oklahoma's annual big-game Bowl loss. Every year the riotous garage-rockers haul their high-energy sound to North Carolina in a van because it's like his family reunion. Like any family, the bond's sealed with trauma, inevitably related to a touring vehicle: Our fill-in drummer Joel—our regular drummer was in jail or flunked a urine test—says, "That sounds like the wheel has something gravely wrong with it." Some lug nuts had come off, and the remaining ones had hollowed out so badly that they were frozen onto the wheel. When we got to low speeds things got even worse. We hobbled to a parts store but they couldn't help us.
Eason picked them up from out of town, and the wrecker deposited the van in the Chapel Hill Tire parking lot near Local 506: We played, and there's a characteristically snot-faced drunk Jack Whitebread who says he'll meet us here in the morning and fix our van. We believed that as much as someone saying they'd come skipping across the lake hand-in-hand with Jesus Christ, or we're going to solve world hunger. Sure enough, that next morning, Jack Whitebread shows up. It's Sunday morning, and he's got an air compressor. The van was kind enough to wait until we were 80 miles from Tulsa before it burned up. But it's worth it.
Eason remembers that night, just as he remembers the very first Elvisfest, which featured an appearance by Chapel Hill's Keith Henderson, a well-noted "Elvis illusionist": I was skeptical, but ... he came walking in to the theme from 2001 like Elvis used to do, and the place went crazy. When they started playing, I got goosebumps. At one point, women were rushing the stage. Keith was handing them scarves, and they were crying. I saw Elvis live twice in my life, and his recreation was unbelievable.
Such is the King's power. Long may his spirit reign.
The Holiday Inn hosting Elvisfest is at 1301 N. Fordham Blvd. (US 15-501). Night 1 of Elvisfest is Friday, Jan. 11. It starts at 7:30 p.m. and includes performances by Tommy Ray & the Ray Guns, Tremors, Bo-Stevens, Taz Halloween, Reverend D-Ray & the Shockers, TCB '56, Straight 8s, Dex & the New Romans and The Buzzkills. Night 2 of Elvisfest is Saturday, Jan. 12. It starts at 7 p.m. and includes performances by Flat Tires, Kelley & the Cowboys, Hick'ry Hawkins, Butchers, Gojira-X, Jimmy & the Teasers, Billy Joe Winghead, Killer Filler and Psychocharger. Tickets are $10 each night. For more information, visit elvisfest.loserville.net.