LAKE GEORGE - Smiling to the raucous cheers from the audience, Elvis tribute artist Matt Joyce stepped off the stage Thursday at Shepard Park.
Joyce's performance, emulating Elvis' signature snarling, his gritty voice, gyrating hip movements and fancy fifties' footwork, drove the fans into a frenzy at the annual Lake George Elvis Festival's opening performance. The free preview concert drew an enthusiastic crowd of about 500.
Joyce said the Elvis Festival lived up to its billing as the second-largest Elvis event outside of Memphis - and it did so with unmatched energy from the audience.
"When the fans come here to Lake George for this weekend, they're ready for it all, and they just grab you in," said the entertainer from Conway, Arkansas who has a regular gig impersonating Elvis at a club in Memphis.
One of those cheering Joyce was Donna Bardelli of Cohoes. She and her sister Connie and son John saved every spare dime and dollar for a full year so they could afford to come back for yet another year at the Lake George Elvis Festival.
During several performances Thursday, Bardelli was gyrating in her motorized wheelchair which was adorned with stickers of The King and had an Elvis purse hanging from its left armrest.
Bardelli admitted she's an Elvis fan, having an extensive collection of Elvis 45s, LPs, as well as Elvis furniture, clothing, photos, paintings and memorabilia filling her home.
She said the Lake George Elvis Festival was the annually the highlight of the year for her and her relatives.
"When you hear these guys perform, you can close your eyes and see Elvis right here with you," she said.
Concertgoer Pat Harrington did have Elvis right with her Thursday, like she has 24-7 for six years.
Harrington showed another fan her tattoo of Elvis' face in a crucifix emblazoned on her back, accompanied with lightning bolts surrounding the letters T.C.B., an acronym of "Taking Care of Business" - an emblem favored by the King.
While she's had the tattoo only six years, Harrington has a long-term relationship with Elvis.
The youngest of nine children, she heard his music from the cradle. As a toddler and throughout her youth, she shared a bedroom with her eldest sister, a devoted Elvis fan. Since then, Harrington has collected Presley memorabilia including one of his famous scarves, and a karate patch.
Harrington's been attending the Lake George Elvis Festival since it was launched, she said.
"I love this event - I just can't let Elvis die," she said. "He will always be in my heart, and these tribute artists here keep it real."
Harrington and Bardelli weren't the only fans for whom Elvis worship was a family affair.
Sisters Cindy Jenkins and Tammy LeClaire of Fort Ann brought four other family members to the festival, and they were gyrating to the beat of one artist after another at Thursday's preview concert.
Rod Stewart impersonator Steve Bobbitt of Peoria Illinois paid this group special attention as he sang Stewart's signature song "Stay With Me" to a crowd that was aghast at his striking similarity to the pop idol.
Bobbitt shook outstretched hands, and crooned within inches of beaming women's faces, and occasionally sat in several of their laps as he sang in a gravelly voice and pranced through the crowd.
"Thesae tribute artists love to perform, and they are very friendly - We love them," LeClaire said after Bobbitt sang to her and her relatives.
After his performance, Bobbitt talked about the exuberance of the fans at the Lake George event. Bobbitt is a full-time Rod Stewart impersonator, performing in Costa Rica, Seattle, Chicago and Vegas with his backup band.
"Rod Stewart doesn't have the most melodic voice, but he loves the people and I like to get the audience involved as he does," Bobbitt said.
"When I got the call to come to Lake George, I said 'Yesssss' - I love it here," he added. "There's such a connection with the audience - this is an awesome place."
Apparently Elvis Festival owner Jason Sherry has figured out how to make a similar connection with his audience.
Despite the economic uncertainties, this years Festival appeared Thursday to be a record-breaker as ticket sales looked like they were about to surpass prior years' tallies, he said.
"We're really excited about this weekend," he said. "It's gonna be gangbusters."
Sherry has launched two other festivals, the New England Elvis Festival, and the upcoming debut Pocono Mountains Elvis Festival, both of which have robust attendance.
Thursday's free show was a preview of this weekend's Lake George Elvis Festival at which 66 tribute artists are scheduled to sing a total of 1,600 Elvis songs, or 5,000 minutes of singing and gyrating, Festival talent director Terry Collins told the enthusiastic crowd. A total of $8,500 in prize money is to be claimed in the competition, in which the top winner will go on to compete in the Ultimate Elvis Tribute Artist competition this August in Memphis.
The first and second rounds of the competition are set for 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with the finals to occur 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. The cost is $15 per session. All are to be held at The Forum. competing tribute artists represent five continents, two Canadian provinces and 21 states in the U.S. from Tennessee to Maine to Texas. Traveling the farthest to compete is a performer from San Palo Brazil, one from Qatar in the Persian Gulf, and two from Australia.
Concerts are set for 8 p.m over the weekend: "Tribute to Rock 'n Roll History on Friday, and "Elvis is Back," starring Shawn Klush, on Saturday. Klush won the Ultimate Elvis competition in 2007.
Saturday's daytime events include an Elvis Classic Car parade set for 9 a.m., south down Canada St. to the Lake George Forum. From noon to 6 p.m., individual Elvis performances will occur around the village at various venues, including taverns. Several themed Elvis cruises will occur from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. aboard the Minni-Ha-Ha, and reservations need to be made at 668-5777. An Elvis dinner is set for Shoreline Restaurant, 5 to 8 p.m. A late-night party is set for 11 p.m. at King Neptune's Pub.
On Sunday, Gospel music will be presented at 9:30 a.m. at The Forum, and a party at 6:30 p.m. at the Steel Pier.
Details are at www.lakegeorgeelvisfest.com.