Last Night: US Air Guitar Championships Regional Qualifier
July 14, 2012
Better than: Air bassoon.
This summer, like so many summers before it, brings an aura of excitement to ambitious competitors worldwide. They train in solitude, shirking social obligations to take their game to a level of godliness on a worldwide stage. Like the titans of Greek myth, combatants in the 10th annual U.S. Air Guitar Championships descend the proverbial Olympus every year for a spot in the World Championships in hallowed Oulu, the fifth largest city in Finland and self-styled capital of Northern Scandinavia.
Saturday's regional qualifier for Nationals, held at the Independent in San Francisco, saw some of the tightest competition to date. Twenty entrants with names like Rockwell, Slayerhands, and Airbama threw in their imaginary hats for a spot in the 10th installment of the National Championships, each player's performance the result of a lifetime of training in the esoteric discipline of Airness.
Competitive air guitar in the United States traces its roots back to 2003, when Cedric Devitt and Kriston Rucker founded the U.S. Air Guitar, the official governing body of air guitar in the United States. Legendary air guitarist David "C-Diddy" Jung won the national and world titles that year, gaining viral fame in the process with his Hello-Kitty-meets-Diamond-Dave getup. In the intervening years, San Francisco has gained its own champion in Hall of Famer in Craig "Hot Lixx Hulahan" Billmeier, the 2008 U.S. and World champion who served as judge and halftime entertainment on Saturday.
Renowned air guitarist Dan Crane (aka Björn Türoque) emceed the competition, kicking off the event with an opening monologue and a rendition of "The Final Countdown" (repurposed as "The Finland Countdown") with Hulahan that recalled the bombast of Bill Shatner at the Miss United States pageant in the Sandra Bullock vehicle Miss Congeniality. Hulahan added a modern touch to the '80s classic by injecting a chorus of "Zou Bisou Bisou," a French yé-yé classic recently re-popularized by Jessica Paré's performance on Mad Men's fifth season premiere.
Türoque also explained the rules of the competition: in the Artistic Round, entrants have 60 seconds onstage to show their skills. They are graded by the judges (Hulahan, Mr. T. Experience frontman Dr. Frank, and local comedienne Caitlin Gill) on technical merit, stage presence, and "Airness," the general je ne sais quois of air guitar, on the scale of 4.0 to 6.0 (borrowed, of course, from competitive figure skating). Following Round One, the top five contestants are called back to perform in the Compulsory Round to 60 seconds of a surprise track (revealed to be "Killing In The Name" by Rage Against the Machine), from which a champion is crowned.
After the pomp and ceremony, the air guitarists got to work. First competitor Blaze Badaxx, attired in a flame-print bowling shirt and Walter White specs, played a show obviously honed from many Monsters of Rock Festival attendances (and likely a few Boilermakers). The judges, who offered American Idol-style appraisals from the balcony after each performance, praised Badaxx for his workmanlike set. Badaxx didn't end up advancing, but the positive reaction to his set undoubtedly inspired dozens of aging-hipsters-slash-West-Portal-dive-bar-alcoholics aspiring to air guitar stardom.
One non-obvious characteristic of air guitarist style is that they're much like snowflakes: no two are the same. While Badaxx performed a routine that would have felt right at home in Wayne's World (or wherever Wayne and Garth got their own Airness from), Shred Theodore Logan, Esq.'s set, playing "Hanger 17" by Megadeth, looked like a cross between shooting a shotgun and attempting to avoid a bee. Frank Danger, meanwhile, played to Danzig's "Mother" and affected a style not unlike a child trying to rub his tummy and pat his head at the same time.
Highlights from the first round included 2011 San Francisco champ Cold Steel Renegade, an eternally-shirtless longhair, who drank from a beer in the crowd before grinding on White Zombie's "Black Sunshine" and eventually throwing his heavy-looking necklace into the crowd. Shred Boyardee showed up wearing a cutoff black tee depicting a wolf howling at the moon -- the kind the D&D dorks in high school used to wear -- and tore into Buckethead's "Soothsayer" with acrobatics that assuredly must have been practiced, drunkenly, for countless minutes prior to competition. New York's Seth Leibowitz, a force on the East Coast circuit, played an actually athletic set with a front-flip-to-splits move that earned high marks from the judges. Local favorites Gogo and Awesome, shut out in previous competitions, displayed much improved sets, with judges singling out Awesome in particular for the realism of his air guitar. "It's like you never let go of your guitar!" said Hulahan of Awesome's rendition of "We're An American Band" by Grand Funk Railroad. Gogo, for his part, unleashed aggressive gorilla-stomps but was otherwise more reserved and controlled compared to the belligerent stylings of his early career.
After the first round dust settled, only Cold Steel, Boyardee, Gogo, Brock McRock, Leibowitz and Awesome still remained standing. Windbreaker, an air guitar supergroup consisting of Hulahan and competitor Awesome, played a halftime set featuring a poignant Beastie Boys air medley, after which the competitors each tried their empty hand at Rage's treatise on institutionalized American violence. Boyardee wilted under pressure and Gogo turned in a performance not dissimilar to his Artistic set -- "Gogo by numbers," if you will. Awesome made a Tony Clifton call and played an anti-Airness set, miming ukulele and tinsel-toeing onstage. Awesome may have taken a dive in the compulsories (literally so, jumping -- twice -- headfirst into the crowd), but analysts will likely analyze the program intensely in the weeks to come.
In the end, Seth Leibowitz won the competition in a near-perfect routine that saw him bounding about onstage and waving his hands like he was playing an unseen Theramin (that he obviously doesn't know how to play). Leibowitz now moves on to the National championship in Denver this week, where he'll have a shot at not only the title of US Air Guitar Champion for the next year, but also a spot at Oulu for the World Championships on August 22-24.
In the end, as competitors joined audience members onstage for a group "Free Bird" air-jam, Türoque best summed up the event: "If you're holding an air guitar, you can't hold a gun." And so we send our best wishes to Seth Leibowitz, San Francisco's newly minted Airness Ambassador, in the coming weeks. Rock on, champ.
American Airdol: The emcee and judges had some choice words for competitors on Saturday, not all of them laudatory:
"We have a strict doping policy-- you must be fucked up to get onstage." - Türoque
"You're like the button-masher of air guitar" - Hot Lixx
"You may have Airness in your heart, but if you're going to come in here, I need to see it on the outside!" - Gill
"That's uncanny. It's almost like you were a real person!" - Dr. Frank
"If you go back to the video, you'll see elements you can improve on." - a very serious Hot Lixx
"I would pay you money to have you do that at the foot of my bed every night." - a very serious Gill
"Sixty seconds is a long time when the air guitarist sucks. And there will be suckage." - Türoque
Slappa De Bassist: Ragging on four-stringers became a common theme on Saturday, with Türoque and the judges taking shots at bassists in their commentaries and grading players down for perceived air-bassing. The lowest marks of the night went to Janine Simmons, who appeared onstage in full-on regalia -- fake tongue included -- as The Demon himself for a performance of "I Was Made For Lovin' You." Judges slammed Simmons on three fronts: (1) selection of Kiss, (2) selection of DISCO Kiss, and (3) dressing up like a bassist. Dead men were held no less accountable, with Türoque mercilessly skewering the late Cliff Burton's bass solo from Metallica's "(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth" before the compulsory round.
I'm Not Making This Up: Other competitors on Satuday included Mormon Rockwell, Tone Def Leppard, Edward Slayerhands, B-Rock Airbama, Dirty Airy, Human Airor, Frank Danger, Nightwolf 5000 (formerly known as Nightwolf 4000), and Goldirocks.