You'll see the studded jumpsuit, mutton chop sideburns and signature pompadour, and while you might not be looking at Elvis Presley himself, it's all too easy to fall under Kraig Parker's spell of illusion. The locally-based performer isn't the King of Rock and Roll, of course, but Parker is a king of tribute artistry, one who has made a name for himself nationally by offering Elvis fans that rare and valued experience of reliving the late, great superstar's magic.
It's hard to say precisely why this month is particularly packed with tribute shows, though there seems an obvious correlation between the late spring's balmy weather and outdoor concerts, festivals and summer kick-off parties.
Now in its 18th year, the Dallas Arboretum's Cool Thursdays Series remains ever popular: Thousands spread out picnic blankets across the plush lawn each week at sunset to catch bands perform in the style of Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen. Other local shows, booked at venues as diverse as Dallas' Granada Theater, Rockwall's Harbor Amphitheater and Whistlestop Plaza in Irving, further exhibit the phenomenon's singular appeal: Whether you dream of seeing The Smiths -- who've angrily vowed to never reunite -- find yourself stinging from the recent death of funk superstar Prince or simply hope to introduce your children to John, Paul, George and Ringo, tribute shows reinvent moments lost to time in your own hometown.
Parker says that's one reason he loves performing as Elvis; while most performers in his particular line of work move to Las Vegas -- that is, he says, if they hope to really make it -- he books mainly in North Texas. It's given him the chance to introduce Presley's songs to new audiences.
"Elvis had this phenomenon; I don't think it's ever been replicated, and I think it's going to go on forever," he says. "But, I'm meeting new fans every day who are first interested in the persona before they become drawn in by the music."
Capturing the star persona is key, though, and it seems to come naturally to the Irving native who now resides in Fort Worth. Parker says he played in bands and made albums through high school and college, but he eventually settled down to raise a family. He worked a corporate job for 20 years and, by happenstance, was asked to perform as Elvis during a company party.
"I reluctantly agreed to play at that party, but I figured I could have some fun with it," he says. "But, I just felt this electricity that I'd never felt before on stage."
He was good. So good, he began entering contests and winning. He realized there is big money to be made for cream of the crop tribute artists and within a matter of years was able to quit his job, get a manager and perform full-time. It was not perhaps his original musical dream, but today, he lives out an entirely new one.
Parker is lucky -- and grateful -- and he'll be the first to say it. Other artists don't reach quite the same level of success, but for them, it's a worthwhile labor of love. Todd Guinn sings and plays guitar and keyboard for FastLane, a five-piece Eagles tribute band. FastLane doesn't dress in costume or otherwise try to imitate the mannerisms of Glenn Frey or Don Henley; but, you won't hear a stray Journey or Foreigner song at their shows. They try to capture the Eagles' as authentically as possible, considering the band's relatively small force.
"We try to do it as completely as we can with just 5 or 6 of us; some of their productions were huge, and with some songs you'd need almost 10 people on stage," he says. "But, we play the music as close to the original as we can."
Guinn says tribute bands can sometimes get a bad rap, but he's proud of his group's professionalism and talent. Sometimes a gig doesn't pay enough to cover the cost of gas, but it's an outlet for real, creative artists, many of whom continue producing original content on the side.
"A lot of us are paying homage to bands that are no longer touring and whose members have died, so you'll never get a chance to see them live," he says.
"In a small way, you get a flavor of what you could have seen with the real act; it doesn't duplicate it exactly, but it beats sitting in your bedroom with a record player," he adds.
FastLane's members came together based on a mutual passion for what Guinn calls the "soundtrack of my life." But for others, that soundtrack isn't contained by a single band. The Molly Ringwalds, for instance, play a widely ranging set list that focuses specifically on the 1980s, but they aren't a typical "party band" or "cover band." Each member has created a fictional stage persona, an amalgamation of his favorite cultural elements that define the era.
The band hails from New Orleans, though you'll see online that their hometown is "Sheffield, England." The lead singer -- who goes by Sir Devon Nooner -- spoke to us in character, British accent included. He says the Ringwalds developed their stage presence drawing from artists they admire as well as a general nostalgic appreciation for the decade's pop culture. You might see him perform dressed similarly to Michael Jackson or Prince, both influences, he says, or Adam Ant; other members incorporate the Devo Energy Dome hat, Twisted Sister spiral curls or Freddy Mercury's mustache.
Together for almost 16 years, 13 in the current lineup, the band's popularity has grown to the point that its members have toured all over the country and even "across the pond" a few times, Nooner says. In a way, it's allowed them to live out an authentic rock-and-roll experience that many just dream about.
"I think we're really just fans," Nooner says. "But, we have a smashing good time."