Music

El Vez wants to wish you a ‘Feliz Navidad’

Robert Lopez, who performs under the name El Vez.

Robert Lopez, who performs under the name El Vez.

Maybe it’s because we’re getting close to the holidays, but “Merry MeX-Mas” is El Vez’s most popular album on iTunes at the moment. It is by no means your standard Christmas record, unless “Santa Claus Is Sometimes Brown” is your idea of a seasonal staple.

Released in 1994, that album encapsulates the subversive wit and pointed political commentary that have always been at the core of El Vez, the self-proclaimed “Mexican Elvis.” He’s the creation of Robert Lopez, a Seattle-based musician who impersonates the King from a Latino perspective. His Christmas show, which he brings to Johnny D’s in Somerville on Dec. 11, backed by the Memphis Mariachis, has become a holiday tradition among his fans.

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“Christmas has been very good to me,” says Lopez, 55, adding that he’s made three holiday albums. “I’m from Southern California, so the whole idea of snow and a white Christmas was totally not in our realm. A lot of times my take on Christmas is that it’s more than a white Christmas. You might have your goose, but I have my tamales; I have my piñata, but you have a yuletide log.

“So I like to open up the idea that Christmas is not always a Norman Rockwell painting,” he adds. “I like to take that Norman Rockwell painting and put a mustache on it.”

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Whether he’s riffing on Presley or David Bowie, Lopez reaches beyond cheap satire. El Vez’s discography is full of parodies, but also originals that mash up mariachi and Tejano music with the swagger of rockabilly and punk. The songs inevitably touch on the Mexican-American experience, addressing issues of immigration and celebrating civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chávez.


What comes off as high camp in concert — any number of YouTube videos will give you a good idea of just how fabulous El Vez is — is actually a carefully constructed persona meant to entertain as much as educate. Look past the gold-lamé pantsuit and the pencil-thin mustache, and an El Vez show starts to resemble a symposium on Chicano identity. Here’s a Mexican-American man impersonating a white entertainer who drew heavily from African-American culture.

Not that his audiences always pick up on all of those nuances.

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“I know they don’t, and I used to worry if everyone was going to get it,” Lopez says. “But years ago I gave up on that. Just put the medicine in the ice cream, and no one notices as much.”

With a presidential election looming, at Johnny D’s he’ll flesh out the Christmas antics with elements of his “El Vez for Prez” show. There’s plenty of timely subject matter to send up, partly thanks to the Republican candidates. (At a recent performance in Los Angeles, Lopez unveiled a piñata in the likeness of Donald Trump.)

Lopez is entering his 27th year as El Vez, which was never the plan.

“When I started it, I thought I’ll do this once and never again,” he says. “But here I am. One of the best compliments I ever got was from someone in one of the opening bands. I overheard him say, ‘Dude, is this the same guy from way back? Maybe they just change out the El Vez guy?’ I thought that was pretty great.”

Lopez hatched the idea of El Vez in the late 1980s, back when he ran a gallery in Los Angeles and previously had been immersed in punk rock as part of the bands the Zeros and Catholic Discipline. Always a side player, El Vez put him “in the driver’s seat,” an outlet for total expression both artistically and politically.

“He is a character, and we have our differences — I’m pretty pessimistic, and I think El Vez lets me get positive ideas out there,” Lopez says. “He’s something I’ve created, but I am free within it. It’s a good hour of freedom to be someone else.”

EL VEZ CHRISTMAS SHOW

At Johnny D’s, Dec. 11 at 6:45 p.m. Tickets: $25-$30. 617-776-2004, www.johnnyds.com

James Reed can be reached at james.reed@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.
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