Dean Z, one of the top Elvis tribute artists in the business, took a chance.
Smack in the middle of Elvis Week 2016, the annual Memphis, Tenn.-based gathering of Presley fans, he stepped out of kingly character in front of an overflowing audience of hardcore Elvis fans. His costume packed away in his wardrobe case, Dean Z took the stage as himself, a dextrous vocalist, dancer and multi-instrumentalist in his own right.
On that toasty August night, he launched the stateside debut of “The Dean Z Show” at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street, the same stretch of real estate where a pre-fame Presley soaked up the rich musical surroundings. Yet, Dean Z’s show wasn’t simply a skilled exercise in a curl of a lip and a swivel of the hip.
With the six-piece Change of Habit Band behind him, Dean Z spent nearly two hours taking the audience on a celebratory romp through some of the music that’s shaped his life. Yeah, Elvis’ tunes were in the building (“Polk Salad Annie,” “King Creole” and others), but songs by The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke and others held spots, too.
Risky for sure. Arguably, Elvis fans may be some of the most passionate and dedicated out there. Many literally trekked across the globe to be in Memphis for Elvis Week for a heaping helping of good rocking tonight. The big unknown: How would they react to a show that played out like a high-energy, eclectic mp3 player on shuffle?
The delivery sealed the deal. Not simply a through-the-motions presentation of cover songs, “The Dean Z Show” coursed with in-the-now energy, audience interaction and the unrelenting commitment to performance shown by its star. Steering the show at an often thrilling pace, Dean Z kept his foot firmly on the throttle with occasional laid back pit stops like “Yesterday,” “Cupid” and “My Way.”
The crowd cheered, they gushed and they danced the night away. Christina Holgate of Calgary, Alberta, Canada hopped from her seat and grooved to the soundtrack alongside a group of friends from several U.S. states.
“Dean Z is quite possibly the most talented and versatile entertainer on earth,” Holgate said. “There seems to be nothing he can't sing. His energy and charisma fill and light up the stage, and bring the audience to their feet.”
He also kept the audience and the band on their toes. Dean Z deftly swayed from the set list, injecting impromptu moments and audience requests. As he perched on a stool with a guitar on his knee, someone from the crowd screamed, “Bruno Mars!” The musician immediately began an unlikely acoustic, off-the-cuff reading of “Uptown Funk” before leading the rest of the band into the 2015 chart topper.
“The great thing about ‘The Dean Z Show’ is it’s guaranteed you've never seen it before,” said Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Jeff Lewis, who sat in the New Daisy audience. “There is no way to predict what he is going to do. Anything goes, and anything can and will happen.”
Rife with surprises, the show’s special guests gave it the feel of a classic TV variety show with a contemporary jolt. Among them, Lance Lipinsky, currently playing Jerry Lee Lewis in the Chicago production of “Million Dollar Quartet,” hammered the keyboard during “Great Balls of Fire.” Stephi Z, Dean’s wife, wowed with the Goffin/King gem “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” Jay Dupuis, Dean Z’s co-star in the touring production “Elvis Lives,” joined Dean for a Blues Brothers-inspired “Soul Man.”
Stepping back to let Dupuis handle lead vocal on the Sam & Dave staple, Dean Z took on the role of Elwood Blues. He channeled a carbon copy of Dan Aykroyd’s footwork, albeit far more graceful and fluid than the comedian.
This proved to be a running theme. If Dean Z gave a vocal nod to any artist that night, he delivered a spot-on interpretation of the respective dance moves. Windmilling across the stage like a young Elvis during a raucous “Jailhouse Rock,” Dean Z’s glide bordered on levitation. His feet went into full-on mashed potato mode for James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” The Michael Jackson moves accompanying “Billie Jean” —yep, he moonwalked— looked straight off of MTV circa 1983.
The vocal gymnastics rivaled the physicality. Dean Z jumped from Cash’s country baritone (“Folsom Prison Blues”) to Jackson’s pop falsetto without a bump. Slinging a guitar over his shoulder, he ripped through Chuck Berry’s leads on “Johnny B. Goode.” Later on, he showed off his nimble fingers on bass.
Sure, Dean Z’s precision shows he takes his job dead serious. But the between-song banter gave evidence of a lighter, down-to-earth side of the performer. The crowd latched on to his relatability, although it’s a safe bet none of us could duplicate anything of Dean Z’s sort.
At one point, the showman revealed that drummer Joe Zannelli recently asked for some Elvis singing lessons. Dean Z then explained Zannelli returned the favor by giving him a drum tutorial the day before the show. Stepping behind the kit with drumsticks in hand, Dean Z and the group proceeded to rumble through a blistering version of the surf instrumental “Wipeout.” Uh-huh, the tale was a cheeky ruse evident by Dean Z’s tight skill on yet another instrument.
An encore of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” had the majority standing, raising their arms in the air and hopping in unison as Dean Z crooned the instructions. His heart likely rattling at maximum beats-per-minute, the show’s leader didn’t cruise to the finish, he sprinted.
Afterward, throngs gathered in the lobby to meet the performer, including Catherine Blaufuss from Los Angeles, Calif.
“The show truly amazed me with raw talent, boundless energy, and edge-of-my-seat excitement about what was coming next,” said Blaufuss. “Dean's soul truly oozes charm, talent and appreciation for his audience. It was so clear that he had given every last bit of energy he had. I feel fortunate to have been a witness.”
photo credit: Eva Brand
photo credit: Eva Brand