THE BIGGEST ELVIS FESTIVAL OUTSIDE VEGAS
BY MARTIN DEVENNEY
In 2011 I had the privilege of being invited the 8th Porthcawl Elvis Festival by the organiser Peter Phillips (the Michael Evis of the Elvis world). I had seen the festival some years earlier on a BBC2 documentary, in fact the festival was originally devised for a BBC programme. From the moment I saw it, I had wanted to go and visit, but had never got around it. However in 2011, fortune smiled on me and time opportunity and a press pass all came together at the same time, so I leapt at the chance. My only regret perhaps is that I went alone and had no one to share the experience with, apart from a few people I met whilst I was there.
Terry Breverton suggested in his book, The A-Z of Wales and the Welsh (2000)that Elvis had Welsh roots. There are the Preseli Hills (also spelled Presely) in north Pembrokeshire, in the same area there is a parish called Saint Elvis and with a voice like his, who would doubt some Welsh roots?
I arrived on the Friday to Porthcawl and although I had been there as a young child, I had little memory of the town. It was not unlike any other British seaside resort that was past its sell-by date and living only 20 miles from Great Yarmouth, the Welsh town felt very familiar. I have always had a love affair with this type of decaying seaside town and can’t help marvel at their once majestic Victorian buildings. There is a Gaelic word ‘Uaigneas ‘ which means the type of loneliness and sadness that you revel in, sort of like listening to a Smiths song and these seaside towns are the architectural equivalent of a Smiths song. They are towns that have been left on the margins of the UK to try and survive and keep going, but with very little investment.
Porthcawl is made up of one High Street that has more than its fair share of charity shops, a few souvenir shops, shoe shops, a couple of bakeries, bars and cafes. They all get into the spirit of the Elvis weekend, welcoming visitors with their Elvis themed signs and posters, their stars and stripes flags and even Elvis themed food and drink menus. The local Subway even had a celebratory Elvis Sub. The High Street leads onto the Esplanade that runs along the length of the beach and is mainly populated by hotels and bars, but at the centre of this stands the Grand Pavilion, an impressive building that has been standing since 1932. Like many other theatres of this type, it oozes entertainment history. One of the most important events to take place there was Paul Robeson’s 1957 performance to a Miner’s Eisteddfod and because he was banned from traveling outside the U.S because of his political views, he performed secretly by phone. The pavilion was also the centre of the Elvis festival, a sort of equivalent to Glastonbury’s pyramid stage.
The other streets leading off the esplanade were made up of small hotels, B and Bs bars and cafes. One of these was the Brentwood and for the festival it had become The Heartbreak Hotel (I shall discuss the delights of the Brentwood later). The funfair is a 10 minute walk around the small Porthcawl peninsula and is called Coney Beach, after Coney Island in New York. Like other areas of the town, it is in need of a coat of paint and some serious investment. On sunny days this is not so noticeable, but when the drizzle begins, the whole area becomes very gloomy. Along from the fair is the High-Tide Bar (the third of the main Elvis venues) and outside the bar were two vast marquees that had non-stop Elvis tribute acts. I was also exited to discover a Wimpey burger bar there, as I hadn’t seen one for at least 20 years. Sadly the Wimpey didn’t still serve their burgers on plates, but it pleased me to think it was still going in this age of McDonalds. From this opening description, it may seem that I wasn’t fond of Porthcawl, but far from it. I love the traditional British seaside town, they are always far more interesting than our homogenous branded town and city high streets, they’re like the punks of town planning and I’ll always be a punk at heart.
Out of season most of these towns struggle to make money, but subculture festivals help them keep going just that little bit longer and is a perfect idea to breathe some autumnal life into them. Thousands of people attended the Porthcawl Elvis Fest’, the biggest of its kind in the world, outside Vegas, (according to Elvis’s tour manager and he’s been to a few). The guys dressed as Elvis like to be known as Elvis Tribute Artists (ETAs) and you will find out very quickly that they do not like being referred to as ‘Elvis impersonators’. The Grand Pavilion has a sizable stage and the seating is arranged around large tables like a Vegas floor show, which really adds to the authenticity. If you scrunch your eyes up just a little, you could actually be watching Elvis in Vegas. Over the weekend there were lunchtime ETA competitions and I saw the first one of these on the Saturday. All the acts were good, but the outstanding one from that first session was a guy called Andy Wood, who went on to be the overall winner, and is worth checking out on youtube to get an idea of what I mean. There were some who had the voice of Elvis, others who looked so much like Elvis it was spooky and other who had the moves and the patter, but there were only four or five who had all of these attributes and when you saw them perform, you could almost be watching the man himself. These Elvis doubles were the crème de la crème of the ETA world and headlined the main shows. One of the best of these was Jaun Lazano. I saw Mr Lazano on the Friday night at the Heartbreak Hotel on a small intimate stage and he was wearing a very cool 1960s suit and played the part of a 1960s Elvis extremely well. His name might suggest different, but Jaun is a Welshman from just up the road in Merthyr Tydfil, but it is very strange watching someone who is so much like the original (see pictures included) in a bar full of people dressed in clothing that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mississippi bar (I knew learning how to spell Mississippi at school would come in handy one day). The Heartbreak Hotel (the Brentwood) was where most of the ETAs hung out and was my favourite of the venues. It had a live backing band and any one of a number of ETAs could get up and do a few songs on the small stage at any time.
On the Friday evening there was a show at the Pavilion called the Three Kings, (although there were four?). All of these guys were at the top of their game and put on a fantastic show, I’m convinced I saw some of the best ETAs in the world. I didn’t get to all of the Pavilion shows, but on the Sunday afternoon there was Elvis at the Movies hosted by ETA Mike Nova. On the Friday I Googled Elvis’s catalogue of work and over such a short life he recorded over 700 songs. Sadly this wasn’t reflected in the festival and it was obvious there were some favourite numbers amongst the performers. The songs were divided by the type or era of ETA that was performing, e.g. there was the G.I. Elvis’s, who would wear their army uniform and perform songs from the G.I. Blues album. Then there were the Vegas White Jump Suit Elvis’s or ‘Elvi’ (which seems to fit as a plural). The Vegas Elvi’s made up about 70% of the ETAs, but thankfully their range of songs was a little larger, but out of the 700 recorded songs, I can only remember about 50 or so being performed. Although I have always loved American Trilogy, I think by the end of the festival I had heard it enough times. The Elvis at the Movies show was far more varied and included some songs that I rarely hear, including Steve Caprice’s version of the Elvis Documentary That’s the Way it is (1970), which include all the between song talking to the audience. I know it might be blasphemy, but I never really thought of Elvis as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, that is a crown that Chuck berry or Jerry Lee Lewis should wear, but Elvis was the King of Vegas and from 1968 to 1975 he was the King of cabaret performers and the songs from this period were some of his best. The great thing about the festival is if the main venues are sold out, you can still get to see the acts in a number of bars around the town for free.
Overall the weekend was a curious mix of time travel and ground hog day, it was like going to a music festival where all the acts are the same. But each ETA had their own way of performing their tribute, which made it different enough to enjoy. There was the odd spell of inclement weather, but when the sun was out, so were the fans and I spent hours sitting outside the Pavilion watching the people walking by in their Elvis T-Shirts, shades and sometimes whole costumes. As well as me, there were other photographers from all over the world and there was the Welsh Tourist Board, the BBC and even a group making a documentary for the Discovery Channel. If you are not a fan of Elvis, this may not be your thing, but if you’ve ever been partial to a song or two from the King of Vegas, then it is essential that you make the pilgrimage to the Porthcawl Elvis Fest at least once. It is without a doubt the most amazing Elvis experience you can have outside Vegas and it occurs every September in a small seaside town in Wales.
All Images and Text ©Martin Devenney/YOUTH CLUB