The King was in Lake George this weekend, or rather four-dozen kings, all vying for the crown of Best in Show at the 13th annual Lake George Elvis Festival.
Inside the cavernous Lake George Forum, performers, who are called Elvis tribute artists, took turns singing two songs each in front of a stellar house band that was rounded out by two backup singers.
The forum was dark and the stage lit with a backdrop of twinkling lights. The Elvises were front and center, crooning their hearts out in their best approximation of the legendary Elvis Aaron Presley, who died 40 years ago next year.
Eight judges sat at tables in the back, each with their own desk lamp providing light with which to write notes by. Ringing the inside of the forum were vendors selling jewelry, trinkets and Elvis paraphernalia. The crowd of about 200 on Saturday afternoon watched and cheered in darkness, seated at tables or in chairs around the stage.
On particularly good performances, women of a certain age crowded the stage, reaching up to the Elvises gyrating in their sequined jumpsuits with faces half hidden behind mile-high collars. Some of the women were rewarded with a kiss or a silk scarf souvenir, right before the performers crescendoed on hits like “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “What Now Love.”
“It’s how good an illusion they can create for the audience,” said Lake George Elvis Festival owner Jason Sherry of the judging criteria. Judges take into account, he said, things like a performer’s costume, their charisma, how well they know the words to the songs they’re singing, and how closely they physically resemble the real Elvis.
It never gets old
Joe Ramsey has been performing as an Elvis tribute artist at the festival since 2005, when he took second place in the nonprofessional category. He was signing autographs and taking photos with fans after his performance Saturday afternoon.
“Every year it gets better,” said Ramsey, sporting Elvis’ signature black pompadour while dressed in a white jumpsuit with red trim, shirt open to just above the navel. “The fan base gets bigger and bigger.”
And, he said, the phenomenon isn’t going anywhere. Each year he sees more young fans and performers, he said.
“I think Elvis Presley is going to go on forever,” said Ramsey, who lives in Queensbury with his wife and daughter. “Each time I do a show there’s a younger and younger audience.”
What is it about Elvis and his music that people continue to celebrate his legacy in this way?
“He was such a humble person,” said Ramsey. “He was a giver. It wasn’t just the music, it was him as a person.”
Sherry said Baby Boomers in particular grew up listening and watching Elvis during their formative years, and such an experience has led to an enduring groundswell of love for the man and his music.
“You’re talking about a person who was larger than life when he was with us and he died way too early,” said Sherry. “I think each person finds something in his story that appeals to them personally.”
Sherry runs six Elvis festivals annually throughout the country, in places like Memphis, Las Vegas and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Alex Mitchell knew he wanted to be an Elvis tribute artist after watching one perform when he was in fifth grade. Mitchell, 22, cut his teeth at the Elvis Festival in Myrtle Beach, and said this was his first time at the Lake George festival.
“It’s the best one so far,” said Mitchell, who has also performed in Memphis and Las Vegas. “The community itself is much more involved with the festival. I like that a lot.”
Mitchell owns the persona of Elvis year round, with the jet black pompadour and mutton-chop sideburns. He said it often comes up as a topic of conversation, but most people are accepting once he gets to talking about it — even if he can’t put his finger on exactly what he loves about Elvis.
“I think people can just connect with him for some reason,” said Mitchell. “He was just really cool.”
Walking around the forum there’s a conspicuous lack of competitiveness. All of the tribute artists greet each other like old friends, and many of them are.
Donna Vetter has been coming to the Lake George Elvis Festival since it began 13 years ago.
“I love all of the Elvis tribute artists; it’s like one big family,” said Vetter. “Everybody is so friendly here.”
Vetter, who said she saw Ramsey perform at the nearby Six Flags amusement park when he was first starting out years ago, agrees with his assessment that Elvis-mania is being passed down to younger generations and transcends the boundaries that typically cause well known but dated artists to fade over time.
“I just think it’s so great that after all these years people are still raising their kids to do Elvis,” said Vetter. “You have 8-year-olds up there doing Elvis. It blows my mind.”
The festival extends beyond the Lake George Forum into bars and restaurants in the rest of the town. At Smokey Joe’s, owner Jerry Porreca said the festival is a great event for Lake George early in the season.
“It brings in a lot of people and they send us really good performers,” said Porreca.
Outside under a popup tent, tribute artist Fisher Stevens was scrolling through the Elvis library on his phone, eventually choosing “Baby I Don’t Care” as diners waited for him to begin.
Cueing up his song on a Discman while waiting to perform was Kevin Harder of Saratoga Springs. He said he’s been an Elvis tribute artist “probably all my life.”
“I remember being a kid and dancing with my mom,” said Harder. “I used to build stages and make the other kids watch me perform.”
Harder said he’s been performing at Lake George for 10 years and tends to sing songs from earlier in Elvis’ career, like “Fame And Fortune,” as well as selections from his gospel oeuvre such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
But despite his love for an old artist’s old songs, and the fact that he’s about to go on stage backed by an obsolete piece of technology, Harder thinks everyone should pay the King a measure of tribute.
“Everyone coming out with music now is inspired by Elvis in one way or another,” he said.