Elvis Festival headlined by Lee Fields & The Expressions
By Marianne Todd
The Tupelo Elvis Festival is most widely known for its Elvis Tribute Artist Competition, but this year's headliner may steal the spotlight.
Slated for June 1-4, Lee Fields & The Expressions take center stage at Friday night's Fairpark, a music event that drew record crowds from around the globe during last year's festival. From a James Brown type of funk to contemporary Southern soul, this stunning vocalist hails from North Carolina with 43 years of performing and recording with such artists as Kool and the Gang, O.V. Wright and Little Royal. His 2009 release “My World” with The Expressions was heralded by Pitchfork as “one smoking mother of an old-sound soul record.”
The departure from “country only” bands is a new take for this festival that draws thousands of tourists to Tupelo from around the world, says Debbie Brangenberg, executive director of Tupelo Main Street, which hosts the event. “We're shaking things up this year,” she said.
The hugely popular Elvis Tribute Artist contest remains a highlight of the festival. Slated at downtown's BancorpSouth Arena, the tribute artist contest had to be moved from the former Lyric Theater locale due to burgeoning attendance. Contestants compete for the title of Tupelo’s Elvis Tribute Artist based on their singing and performance ability – and their likeness to Elvis. Each night, former Tupelo winners perform their tribute to the King of Rock 'n’ Roll to a packed audience. Winners move on to compete in the Ultimate Tribute Artist Competition at Graceland.
This year's Elvis Tribute performers include crowd favorite Bill Cherry, along with Doug Church, Diago Light, Brandon Bennett, Jay Dupuis, David Lee and Dean Z, all of whom are Tupelo and Ultimate Tribute Artist winners.
Also at BancorpSouth on Saturday morning will be “Conversations with Tom Brown,” a native of Tupelo and former vice president of Turner Classic Movies who works extensively with Graceland and Elvis Presley Enterprises. This year, Brown will converse with Marlyn Mason, co-star of Elvis' 1969 “The Trouble with Girls” movie and with Troy Montgomery from the popular band Montgomery Gentry, who is a huge Elvis fan and who made and performed in a jacket mimicking Elvis' white studded jump suit at Tupelo's Fairpark.
On both Friday and Saturday, a reenactment depicting Gladys buying Elvis his first guitar at the Tupelo Hardware Store will take place. This is a new event for the festival. “There will be actors who represent the people who knew Elvis at the time,” Brangenberg said. “They'll recount their experiences with Elvis growing up in Tupelo, and there will be a mix of music downtown – acoustic, blues, rockabilly, black and Southern gospel on the street corners.”
Also new to this year's festival is Thursday's Music at the Mill, a re-purposed venue that once served as the city's cotton mill and warehouse, coupled with Tupelo's craft beer vendor, 1817, and live music throughout downtown Tupelo in the afternoons. “We will have music during afternoon times when there are no performances so that anyone who comes to town can hear live music all day,” Brangenberg said.
Don't miss the Pet Pageant and Parade on Saturday morning, where animals “look like Elvis” as they parade past the audience.
The festival has become so popular that it has earned the title of International Fan Best Festival by the Elvis Presley Tribute Industry awards, Brangenberg said.
“We always have such a good time. The people who come back every year become part of our family, and we have new visitors every year,” she said. “It's a fun atmosphere, and even if you're not totally an Elvis fan, it'll rub off on you. As John Lennon said in 1975, 'Before Elvis there was nothing.'”
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