The crowd screamed and the LED bars fluttered and held at the upper border of the E-Q shirt. “I think you all broke the t-shirt! Again, 1-2-3!” More screaming, more lights, the same result. This was how the regional US Air Guitar championships were being decided: the read out from a sound tech’s geeky, light-up shirt. I hardly batted an eyelash. It just fit into the natural course of things. After several hours of flamboyance and machismo, the honor of DC’s air guitar reputation resting on the fluctuations of a light-up t-shirt seemed like nothing to me. And that’s what the US Air Guitar Regionals, held last Friday at the 9:30 Club, was all about. Blowing your mind.
I approached competitive air guitar with a measure of incredulity. I assumed that I’d be treated to fleshy denizens of “mom’s basement”, out to strut their stuff and generally make fools of themselves, and that after two or three performances I’d grow bored and b-line for bar. I was so self-assured that I grabbed a few drinks before the competition, just to give the evening a fighting chance. Journalistic integrity (if bloggers are actually beholden to that) kept me to two beers, after which I girded my loins and headed for the 9:30.
My arrival at the venue did little to liven my hopes. There were few fans milling about, even 45 minutes after doors, and I resigned myself to bearing witness to a lonely parade of faux rock stars in an empty venue. Then, five minutes before the show started, the club rather suddenly filled up. As the competition kicked off, the cheering crowd pressed towards the stage and an inkling of “maybe this will be fun” crept into my brain. My introduction to competitive air guitar game came at that moment, in the form of the reigning world champ and presiding panel judge Hot Lixx Hulahan, the host Bjorn and two audience members (air bassist and air drummer) performing in exhibition. After the intro concluded, business started. We received a brief explanation of the rules, an introduction to the judges, and DC’s thespians of metal came out to render their airness.
The first round set the tone for the competition. The contestants, festooned in mullet wigs and leather, head banged their way through their sixty second performances. While there was a clear delineation between the marginal and the serious contenders, even the most prosaic air guitarist put out in spectacular fashion. Contestants burst out of mock amps, flaunted their “curves” and tore clothing from their bodies. In the end, charisma and “technical” proficiency won the night. Two contestants, Sanjar the Destroyer and The Shred established themselves as front runners in the first round. They forsook props and gimmicks for shear rock-audacity, which the crowd ate up, chanting “S-T-D! S-T-D!” and “Shred! Shred! Shred!” after their performances.
The lull between the first and second rounds gave me a moment to reflect on my feelings towards air guitar. Almost without thinking I leaned to the person standing next to me and said, “this is awesome! I’m having way more fun that I thought I would!” I was won over, wholly and completely. The airing was hilarious and, most importantly, the crowd was into it. Fists were in the air, girls screamed, and people loudly debated the technical merits of their favorite performances. The second round was boisterous as the first. Sanjar and Shred continued to be head and shoulders above their competitors. In the end, it came down to a tie between the two, resulting in the drama of a sudden death “air off.”
A coin toss determined that Shred would air first and he put on a spectacular performance to a mash-up of Boston. The judges scored him just a decimal point or two shy of perfect, placing the onus on Sanjar to rock flawlessly, which he did. Nearly. He landed an identical score and, for the first time in US Air Guitar competition, an air off failed to produce a winner.
This is where the LED shirt came in. At a loss, the judges noticed that one of 9:30′s sound techs was wearing a light up E-Q t-shirt that responded to noise. He was hauled on stage and made to stand while the audience screamed its support for their favorite air guitarist. After several inconclusive results and the crowd growing hoarse, the judges huddled to defer. There was still no clear indication of who would be representing DC in the National Championships. Finally, they emerged with a verdict, a most satisfying one: Sanjar and Shred would both be moving on. The audience went insane and the two competitors hugged and jumped around the stage.
The evening ended with myself, the contestants and the 50 or so people from the first few rows hopping up on stage and airing to Free Bird. I know this is a cliche way to conclude, but: it was the perfect end to the competition, mostly because I was on stage and the 9:30 Club.
The ultimate fate of Sanjar and Shred will be decided at the National Air Guitar Championships on August 7, right here in DC. My proclamation is that you and your friends must attend to cheer on our home town heroes. If you appreciate irony and aren’t afraid to throw off social graces for a few hours, you’ll have a fantastic time. Take it from a former skeptic: air guitar rocks.