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Critic's Choice

At Bob's Bad Vapors in Memphis, arguably the birthplace of karaoke, you can see a different Elvis impersonator every twenty minutes -- if you're an absolute masochist, that is. Seemingly rolled off some glitzy assembly line in Dante's Inferno, sneering exhibitionists from all walks of life converge year round upon the club to wiggle their hips shamelessly and execute bad karate moves in gold lamé. Yet for East L.A.'s Richard Lopez -- better known as El Vez, the Mexican Elvis -- what began in Bob's in 1998 as a onetime dare against himself has blossomed into a dazzling Vegas revue that blends Latino politics with delirious satire and camp. The undeniably suave El Vez, who performs Tuesday, December 17, at the Bluebird Theater, stands cape and pompadour above your average rhinestoned mooncalf by virtue of his wit, ingenuity, tireless activism and groovy Aztec headgear. Beyond a few mindlessly entertaining parodies ("You Ain't Nothin' but a Chihuahua" barely equals the novelty of Weird Al or Dread Zeppelin), the bulk of this year's "Mex-Mas" show honors Bing Crosby (sort of) and celebrates the release of Sno-Way Jose, El Vez's latest CD, in all its jingling glory. The last round of seasonal merriment until 2004, the extravaganza promises the usual clever social commentary, from anti-gang violence ("Now or Never") to border politics ("Suspicious Minds" as "Immigration Time") and ethnic pride ("Viva La Raza"). Backed by the brass-charged Memphis Mariachis and the lovely Elvettes (Priscillita, Lisa Maria, Que Linda Thompson and Gladysita. ¡Ay, ay!), el Rey and company make Vez-story by grafting together a dizzying array of pop fodder and musical samples from roughly 200 songs. In the end, they wind up mating James Brown with Rage Against the Machine ("Say It Loud, I'm Brown and I'm Proud") and creating a kind of cholo-rock opera ("J.C. Si Lowrider Superstar"). Whoever said jalapeños don't belong on a peanut-butter, jelly and bacon sandwich?