Not for the faint of heart, Elvisfest is a raging party held in Chapel Hill annually on or near Elvis Presley’s birthday, Jan. 8, 1935. This celebration of the “King of Rock and Roll” is organized by Dave Quick, co-founder of the Heavy Rebel Weekender. As the Elvisfest website describes, “Over the course of two nights, 20 bands (give or take) will each play a 40- minute set of the music of their choosing, but each band must incorporate into its set at least two Elvis songs. Musical styles vary widely and include punk, honky-tonk, rockabilly, psychobilly, country and rock ‘n’ roll.”
One of the things that makes Elvisfest so fun is the fact that it is held at Holiday Inn. The hotel is basically taken over for the weekend by fans and bands. Planned and spontaneous parties happen in the rooms, and out by the pool during the day. The bands perform in the two rooms of the hotel’s Time Out Sports Bar, as Elvis movies play on all of the televisions. Time Out also serves a special “Graceland Grub” Elvis Presley-themed menu for the weekend with items such as grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches. With everything in one place, no one has to drive anywhere, and the booze flows freely.
My Mad Tea partner-in-crime Jason Krekel and I got to Elvisfest on Friday with just enough time to check into our room before the first band started. As we walked up to the Time Out Sports Bar we could hear one of the first songs of the weekend, which was, appropriately, “Hound Dog.” It was being played on the Heartbreak Hotel stage by April Mae & The June Bugs, a quirky trio out of Boone. We caught some of their set, then headed to the Jungle Room to see our good friends the Straight 8s play.
I gotta say, the Straight 8s are one of the best rockabilly bands out there right now. A musically tight trio, they play classic-sounding originals penned by front man Robert Striegler (guitar). Daniel Mebane (bass) and Mark Murphy (drums) are a killer rhythm section. Their show is high energy and exciting. It is a rare skill to be able to take an established genre and make it sound fresh.
After the Straight 8s, I went back to the Heartbreak Hotel to hear Kitty Box & the Johnnies. Fronted by singer Taz Halloween, Kitty Box & the Johnnies was comprised of a host of Chapel Hill singers and musicians, none of whose names I caught. But boy they could all sing and play! I really enjoyed their renditions of old country, doo wop and Hawaiian songs. Towards the end of their set, I could hear the loud pounding music of Blood Red River in Jungle Room so I slipped over to check it out. The animated band filled the room with loud rock, while a beautiful woman in a gold sequin dress danced provocatively on stage with them.
At that point I went to my room to change my outfit for the impending Mad Tea set, so I missed Phatlynx, which is too bad. They shred Link Ray songs. I got back to the Jungle Room in time to hear Kelley & The Cowboys, who happen to be my one of my favorite honky-tonk groups out there doing it. Kelley Breiding has a true vocal gift, and her band is top notch.
Time really started to speed up for me at this time. I watched my friends the Bo Stevens charm the crowd with country songs. Krekel joined them on fiddle for a couple of numbers, including a blazing “Orange Blossom Special.” I was so proud. I also got to catch some of Dave Quick’s band, TCB ‘56 —- the only straight Elvis Presley cover band of the weekend. I think they did the King justice.
Then all of a sudden it was Mad Tea’s turn to play on the Heartbreak Hotel stage.
One thing I love about Elvisfest is the crowd — boisterous and wild, they are a blast to play for. I felt great about our performance, though at points I was hanging on for dear life as Krekel blazed through our songs at top speed. We were especially high energy that night. Or, to put it more poetically, we rocked the f out. The Elvis songs we did during our set were “Spin Out” and the more obscure “Mexico.” A thrilling set, it was over way too soon.
In the haze of post show talking with folks, loading up gear, etc, I missed John Howie, Jr. & the Rosewood (featuring John Howie of the Two Dollar Pistols). I heard they were terrific. After 12:30 am or so, with the bands finished, the hotel room parties really geared up. Many of the rooms featured big spreads of food and (of course) plenty of adult beverages. Krekel and I ended up hosting a late night jam in our room, which, over the course of the night, with lots of great folks including former Asheville-based musician Morgan Geer (Unholy Trio, Drunken Prayer), Dave Hartman (Southern Culture on the Skids), Josh Johnson (Pinche Gringo, Paint Fumes), and Jimmy Brad Ray (The Midway Charmers), to name a few.
I think we finally went to sleep at 5 a.m., having thoroughly celebrated Elvis Presley and the campy culture he left behind.