Monday, 23 November 2009
Donegality (part 2): Hard Knocks
Kraig Parker is sitting back in a western-style jacket – rodeo Elvis from Tickle Me – and aviator sunglasses. He’s given up on the mountain of chips. A man I take to be his Colonel Parker is praising Red Alert, the backing band. Kraig is reputed to earn up to $3 million a year as one of the world’s top ETAs. He started in 1995 after busting out some Elvis at an office party, then came 3rd in a local competition and got himself an agent. He’s a graphic designer by trade but now travels the world as an Elvis headliner. He’s a little shorter and a little meatier than Elvis but last night when he played a little set between the Brit Elvises, it was clear that he’s in another class. There’s Elvis charisma, the moves are perfect and an Elvisian introspection – something about it not being him that’s funny, but us. He has a touch of the cool remove, unfathomable Elvis that is there in the performances and interviews. He’s a bit of a talismanic figure for the British and Irish Elvis conventions. I look at the Irish Sun newspaper to stop myself staring at him. Jedward have survived on the X-factor, Elvis quiffs and all.
Other than Kraig smoking his cigar as he strolls down the main drag, there’s not much Elvisness in Bundoran today. Kraig Parker seems to be the only Elvis braving the changeable weather. The landord of Teac Sean Rua says that they usually have traditional music but they’d booked a local Elvis for the festival. He’ll be on again tonight – it seems to go down well. I drink a Jameson's then a Guinness to make the hotel drinks more palatable. Up at the Great Northern, the warm up is well underway for the All Ireland Final. Last year’s winner, Ciaran ‘Eireann Elvis’ Houlihan, is delivering a barnstorming set including an American Trilogy duet with a young guy with Downs Syndrome (the Downs Syndrome Society is the chosen beneficiary of this and the Porthcawl festival). Then the judges – a judgemental looking lot that I must investigate further – take their seats front right of the stage and the show begins.
First up is Patrick Byrne who does a good, humourful Elvis. He’s tall and has presence in That’s The Way It Is gear. It’s a good start. The next two aren’t so good: Martin McCluskey doesn’t entirely cut it as GI Elvis and I chat with some home-town friends of Glasgow’s Johnny Lee Memphis (more later). Then Daniel Kirwin. He’s in a wheelchair and stays on the dancefloor, in front of the stage. Now, Elvis was never in a wheelchair so far as I know, but as soon as Kirwin opens his mouth, the dancefloor fills. He has a terrific rich Elvisy voice and he’s got good tunes. The crowd love him. He distributes a few yellow lei to the girls and leaves a happy crowd to thumping applause. The next two are also fairly forgettable (could be they’re too Vegasy for me to remember them) and I say to Glasgow Bernie that it’s got to be Kirwin but his money’s on Byrne. But there’s one more to go, and a lithe, slim Elvis in gold lame jacket and black trousers, with an acoustic guitar bounds onto the stage. He goes straight into the classic rock ‘n’ roll hits and embodies young movies Elvis on rhythm guitar. The dancers are back and it’s clear who the winner is. This is Tom Gilson, a 39-year old bookbinder who, according to the Irish Times, sings Love Me Tender to his wife at night. There are a few in the audience who wouldn’t mind that and he’s signing autographs as soon as he comes off. The judges results are in, victory indeed for Tom (Paddy Power had him a 6/1 contender). Byrne (11/10) is second. All six do a photo call and then Tom is on for a victory set. He goes forward to represent Ireland in the Elvis Tribute Artiste World Cup, in Cardiff on July 4th.
I chat to a few folk. All but one say that they’re here for their partner. She/he loves Elvis so they came with. One woman who’s come from Porthcawl with her mother (because her own daughter, who usually does the accompanying can’t make it) says that mother thinks the Irish crowd are a bit raucous. Porthcawl is much more serious she says. I say that my perception is the Porthcawl crowd are the rowdiest. Away from home syndrome we agree. But Pat from Letterkenny has an Elvis tattoo. He’s happy to admit how much he loves the King. He looks close to tears when he talks about how Elvis is so strong in his household. He gives me a couple of DVDs I haven’t seen. We agree we’ll meet again at the World Cup in Cardiff.
There’s great craic tonight – much more lively than last night and much more of a home crowd. People have travelled to be here and it makes for a great event. Peter Phillips – the entrepreneur behind both this and Porthcawl, and also Tedfest, the annual Father Ted convention held on the Aran Islands – is greeted as a friend and is clearly a bit overwhelmed by his creation. But it’s interesting – he’s not representative of the crowd. He’s a historian and a writer and seems very English of a certain class. He stands out against a fairly earthy and homogenous crowd. I would say that difference stands out here generally, but difference of a certain kind – this is a kind crowd with a deep humanity judging by the importance of charity to the proceedings. But there’s also connoisseurship. People who love Elvis know the wheat from the chaff. Donegality is a word coined by CS Lewis ("to Donegal for its Donegality"), reclaimed by author Michael Ward to "denote the spiritual essence or quiddity [...] of a story [...] its peculiar atmosphere or quality; its pervasive and purposed integral tone or flavour; its tacit spirit" (from the A-Team Blog). There is a warm quality to the Donegality of Elvis tonight.
Pictures: Kraig Parker, Bundoran; Tom Gilson; Pat's tat. All: Pen77