Freaks, come forth

This Halloween weekend marks the city’s 22nd annual Freakers Ball, reports James Barringer of the Asheville Music Zone.

But it’s the first time the event will be stretched out over two nights.

“They’ve had it at the Hilton; they’ve had it at the Radisson — it’s happened all over the place. Typically, they’d have five or six bands on one night, but we’re going to run it over into Sunday because we got Dread Zeppelin,” says Barringer, who bought the rights to stage the Freakers Ball three years ago.

Rock-and-soul club favorites Gran Torino will be Saturday night’s entertainment. This tight groove posse, formed in Knoxville, Tenn. (their horn section is straight out of the UT Marching Band), is riding the wave of its second, more-pop-flavored studio CD, Gran Torino Two (26.2 Records, 1999).

“Everybody loves Gran Torino. It doesn’t matter their demographic or age group; they’re perfect for everybody,” Barringer believes. “And we’re glad to have a bigger, more accommodating room for them now at the Music Zone.” He adds that Saturday night’s fun will also include a costume contest offering $200 in cash and prizes.

On Sunday night, Dread Zeppelin turns the Music Zone into the Twilight Zone.

For anyone unaware of DZ’s MO, lay some classic Zeppelin over a reggae band, then throw The King on top — belly and all. Dread Zeppelin, formed in 1989, features guitarist Bob Knarley, drummer Spice, percussionist/vocalist Ed Zeppelin, bassist Butt Boy, guitarist Carl Jah, lead singer Tortelvis, and Charlie Haj handing out towels.

“I guess you have to be a real fan of Elvis and Led Zeppelin and reggae to play this stuff night after night for 12 years now,” Tortelvis concedes. “And it’s still fun for us. We don’t tour quite as much as we did in the early days, but we’re still having a good time.”

The band has four CDs on Cash Cow Productions, including a new studio release, De Jah Voodoo (2000), which spotlights them at full-strength zaniness, trying out an updated sound complete with drum loops and techno beats. And the group’s officially sanctioned Dread Zeppelin bootleg, Haunted Houses of the Holy, shows they’ll be a suitably outlandish headliner for the Freakers Ball.

Xpress caught up with Tortelvis last week after the band returned from a swing through Alaska.

Mountain Xpress: It’s an honor to speak with you, Tortelvis.

Tortelvis: Well, thank ya very much.

MX: You guys are a riot, and you can play, too.

Tortelvis: Yeah, I guess you’ve got to have something to back up the goofiness with. The music is pretty good, I think.

MX: Is there any meaning behind the name Tortelvis?

Tortelvis: Well, my [real] last name is Tortell, and put a ‘vis’ on the end of it and there you go. But people call me Tort Elvis, tort[e] meaning a pastry or cake of some kind.

MX: Does that imply that you favor Elvis, appearance-wise, in his later years — the heavy years?

Tortelvis: Well, I tend to pack a few extra pounds on, so I guess you’d have to say that, yes.

MX: This is like the Elvis on his comeback tour …

Tortelvis: More the ’75-’77 Elvis, right. He wasn’t looking all that thin, and weird things are happening on-stage. A lot of sweat. A lot of people helping him to move around and do simple things onstage.

MX: Was Dread Zeppelin your big break, or did you have a career before [as an Elvis impersonator]?

Tortelvis: I didn’t really have a career before, no. I just sang around locally, and then the Dread Zeppelin thing took me to the next step. I got to take the show on the road throughout the U.S. and Canada. We’ve visited about 30 countries now — it’s a pretty wild ride, I’ll tell you.

MX: Did anybody like you much before Dread Zeppelin?

Tortelvis: Personally? No, nobody really liked me all that much. There were a few people that thought what I did was kind of fun …

MX: Did you always do the Elvis thing, or did you sing in your own voice?

Tortelvis: I sang in my own voice. On our new studio record, I’m throwing a little bit of what I might sound like if I didn’t sound so much like Elvis. There’s a lot of Elvis stuff on it, but some stuff that sounds like maybe Marc Almond of Soft Cell. Ed Zeppelin does some singing on the new one too, as well as his usual toasting and rapping.

MX: Do you think Elvis might have hooked up for a tour with Led Zeppelin if he were still around?

Tortelvis: I’d heard an interview with Elvis a few months before he died about how he was into this “new reggae thing,” as he called it. And of course Robert Plant was a big fan of Elvis. I think they actually jammed together once. So maybe the two would have come together, and maybe they would have been doing what we’re doing now. It’s hard to say. [Elvis’ death] was a sad day in my life and a lot of other peoples’ lives.

MX: Some bands have two concepts, but few are brave enough to embrace three, the way you guys do.

Tortelvis: It all started, really, when someone came up with the name. They said, “Dread Zeppelin, wow, that would be Led Zeppelin [played] reggae-style.” And we went out there and played it, and at the very beginning I tried to see if I could sound like Robert Plant, which was very high. Then I said, “Well, let me try my Elvis thing.” So it really started with the reggae and Zeppelin, and then I threw my Elvis in. There you have it.

MX: Are people scared to have you as opening act?

Tortelvis: We’ve been asked a few times by groups. One time, we were supposed to go out with Van Halen, because they’re from the same town we’re from [Temple City, Calif.]. But we have such a weird little thing that we do that it doesn’t really fit anywhere. We have to do our own show. We don’t fit with anybody else, if you think about it. We’re more on the Weird Al side of things — but I think if we didn’t dress up and do the goofy show, the music would still stand on its own.

MX: Is Halloween a special night for you guys?

Tortelvis: The good thing about it is that we really don’t have to go out and buy an extra costume for the night. We’re already there.

Haunted Happenings

WNC’s Halloween Calendar

Calendar Editor’s note: Oct. 31 is the ancient Celtic holiday of Samhain, “summer’s end,” when the light half of the year has fallen with the dying leaves to the dark, a twilight time when the souls of the dead might return to mingle with the living. An empty place at the table is traditionally set to honor the dead with a “dumb supper”; and some believe that children wear masks to conceal them from the restless spirits wandering abroad on that uncanny night.

Haunted Theatre

TH (10/26) through TU (10/31): The UNCA chapter of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology will create this 4th annual event, which converts Carol Belk Theatre into a house of horrors and drama students into ghouls, as a fund raiser to support the student group. A special “lights on” tour for young children will be offered beginning at 6:30 p.m.; spooky adult tours run 7:30-10 p.m. Info: 232-2291

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