PARKES, Australia — Japan’s Elvis Presley bowed in silent respect. He then launched into a rendition of “Burning Love” that sounded straight out of Memphis, and definitely stretched the crotch of his blue jumpsuit to the breaking point.
Backstage, a few more “Elvi” — the plural of Elvis, at least at the largest Elvis festival in the southern hemisphere — were going through the final song choices, sweating their choices for a crowd that blurred the line between fans and impersonators. Thousands of Elvi’s were in central Australia, ages 5 to 85, wearing more pompadours and casual outfits than anyone could count.
“God, it’s so many people,” said Charles Stone, Elvis’s tour manager from 1971 until his death in 1977, surveying the scene with a gold chain poking out of his T-shirt. “Look at this.”
Parkes, a small town five hours’ drive from Sydney, now sparkles once a year with sequins and Elvis rhinestones. About 25,000 people typically join the festival, which began with a couple of restaurant owners trying to bring a little less talk and a little more action to Parkes.
That was in 1993. Nearly 30 years later, the festival has become a national treasure that exemplifies how Australians tend to do a lot of things: all together, self-deprecating humor and copious amounts of booze.
This year’s event, after Covid forced a cancellation in 2021, felt more Elvis-like than ever. A certain heaviness mixed with the emotion of rock ‘n’ roll. From small pubs with first-time singers to golf courses and rugby pitches where matches were played with the same Elvis team, and of course to the main stages, where the world’s biggest tribute artists could be found, there was a craving for post-lockdown, post-pandemic release.
What is life for, many of them shouted over music, if not for a sense of abandon to dress up and let loose, get each other up on stage and SING?
“It allows us to forget everything,” said Gina Vicar, 61, a small business owner from Melbourne who had come to the festival with a dozen friends. “With everything we’ve been through and what the world is going through right now, it’s great to see all this joy.”
When we met, he had just shouted encouragement to an Elvis (real name Deon Symo) who had announced that he was only 21 and from Adelaide, a city much joked about and rarely celebrated.
He wore a white jumpsuit as he stood in front of a red curtain held up by elastic bands in a pub with sticky floors, and the crowd treated him like a Las Vegas superstar. Two women a decade or two older than him danced in front, mouthing the words to each song.
“He has a great voice,” Ms. Vicar said. “He just needs the trust.”
Throughout Parkes, Wednesday through Sunday, Elvi won over the Elvis faithful.
Toki Toyokazu, the singer from Sendai, Japan, was the crowd’s favorite; he won the festival’s formal competition in 2020, and his comeback seemed to signal a post-Covid milestone.
“There is only one Elvis,” Vaz, 65, said Saturday morning as the festival parade began. “There are many pretenders and many contenders, but there is only one Elvis.”
Except in Parkes, an old mining town in a country where Elvis has never played a concert.
A few minutes earlier, the area’s mayor and local member of parliament had passed, sitting in the back of a convertible, wearing 1970s jumpsuits along with wigs and sunglasses. Mrs. Vicar and her friends walked in the parade alongside, well, the full range of Elvi.
Some of the Elvis outfits on the dads’ bodies looked pretty tatty or ripped in unfortunate places. These were mostly rugby Elvi, who had gathered on Friday night for an annual match between the Elvis-inspired “Blue Suede Shoes” and the “Ready Teddys.”
Doug Moore, 41, officially the water boy, which meant pouring bags of wine down breathless players’ throats, told me they enlisted early on in the festival’s history to build support by wearing the same outfit. of Elvis throughout the weekend of the festival.
Tiffany Steel, festival director and daughter of founders Bob and Anne Steel, confirmed her instrumental role. In 2007, they helped make the Parkes festival Guinness World Records: 147 Elvi gathered to sing “Love Me Tender”, breaking the previous record of 78 for “largest gathering of Elvis Presley impersonators”.
“When you’re from a town like this,” said Mr. Moore, a project manager, as he arranged a wig to go with a skintight outfit, which included a cape, “you just have to do it.”
Americans these days seem a little less willing. Mr. Stone, a former Elvis concert director, said the growth of “Elvis culture” now came mainly from outside the King’s home country.
Taylor Rodriguez, 24, an American from Lynchburg, Virginia, who was crowned the 2019 Elvis Tribute Artist Champion by Elvis Presley Enterprises, noted that in the United States, dressing up was often seen as disrespectful to Elvis’ legacy. In America, everything seems to be more serious, while in Australia, not joining in the laughter is still the biggest sin.
“I don’t think there’s a home festival that compares to Parkes,” Rodriguez said in an interview. “Here, it’s pure, it’s pure fun. It’s just for the love of Elvis.”
Or maybe it’s the combination of experience and amateur friendly hour that really makes it special.
On Friday night, Rodriguez played songs from 1960s Elvis movies to a packed house at Parkes Leagues Club, a musty mid-century marvel with a 600-seat capacity, wood-panelled walls and a painting of a giant satellite dish next to the stage. (The dish is Parkes’ other claim to fame. He helped broadcast footage of the 1969 US moon landing to the world.)
The next night, after the parade, Rodriguez produced a great 1970s Elvis show with a historian’s attention to detail. He walked through the crowd, and at one point, with Mr. Stone onstage next to him, he tossed silk scarves to the fans one by one, just as Elvis had done.
But when a boy not much older than he was when he started acting like the King (at age 9) tried to grab one, it broke character. Crouching down, wearing a suit with a giant collar to match the one Elvis wore during a concert broadcast on television from Honolulu in 1973, he guided the scarf toward the boy and offered a message that everyone, considering the past of the pandemic and the uncertain future, they needed to hear: “Follow your dreams”.
He then stood up, nodded to the band, and moved on.