First published at The Owl Mag in July, 2008, SF Jukebox with pictures available here.
Thanks to the madmen behind US Air Guitar, a show consisting entirely of performers playing invisible guitars can sell out the Independent. For those unfamiliar with the magic and mystery of air guitar, it is an annual collection of freaks, wannabes, amateur comedians, and rock lovers who literally "play" air guitar on stage. Sometimes a contestant seems to be completely disconnected from both his body and the music. Other times, a contestant is so good that it's as if a guitar will materialize in his hands any second.
The spectacle's inventors have designed a rubric for measuring this skill, employing three judges—think The Muppet Show's Statler and Waldorf with unlimited drinks and a third, equally critical sidekick—to drink heavily and rate the contestants on technical merit, stage presence, and airness. Airness is that certain je ne sais quois that launches an air guitarist from novice to virtuoso. Although no scientific studies have been done on the subject, it's likely that alcohol plays a role in one's airness (or lack thereof). Alcohol also enhances one's ability to be a fair and critical judge. Like the last two years, judges Marc Hawthorne (Onion AV Club), Jennifer Maerz (SF Weekly), and John Trippe (FecalFace.com) were completely hammered by the end of the night.
The event is decided in two rounds. In Round 1, each contestant performs to 60 seconds of the song (or medley) of his or her choosing. Round 2 brings the highest scorers from Round 1 back on stage for the compulsory round, where each contestant has to perform to the same clip of the same song. The audience has the honor, or horror, of hearing that song (in this case "I'll Stick Around" by the Foo Fighters) ad nauseum. Judges' scores range from 4.0 to 6.0, a system inspired by Olympic Figure Skating. The highest-scoring contestant from Round 1 has a significant advantage going into Round 2. The contestant with the highest combined Round 1 and Round 2 score wins the Regional Championship and moves on to compete in the US Finals, which will be held at the Grand Ballroom in San Francisco this year. Asked in the pre-show press conference why San Francisco was chosen to host the finals, Another Planet Entertainment's Bryan Duquette responded, "People in San Francisco like to dress up in costume."
Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds. Reflecting on his victory at the press conference, the 2006 San Francisco Regional champ Hot Lixx Hulahan remembered asking himself, "Do I tell people I won air guitar?" But with sponsors like Cuervo Black (who failed to sponsor any kind tequila special at the bar), a documentary called "Air Guitar Nation," and a pre-show press conference, it's sometimes hard to tell if this is all in the name of irony or if the organizers and contestants actually take the whole thing at least a little seriously. Regardless, this year's San Francisco Regional Championship attracted a perverse and often baffling selection of the Bay Area's, um, talent making for another fun night.
The evening began with the ceremonial air-ing of "War Pigs," where master-of-air-emonies and retired contestant Bjorn Turoque invited audience members to join him on stage and play air bass and air drums as he sang (really sang, not air sang) and aired lead guitar. Turoque's career includes five second-place finishes, with the exception of a win at the New York Regional in 2005. Despite never having won the national title, Turoque has become the face and voice of US Air Guitar. Turoque's bandmates were both women, and the drummer out-shined the bassist, who probably thinks Black Sabbath is a holiday for Satanists.
With that out of way, the competition was underway. The Independent's own Ricky Stinkfingers, last year's Regional Champion, was up first. Clad in pink lyrca, Stinkfingers sported a much larger bulge in his pants than last year, either an indication that he's been taking performance-enhancing substances or that he brought his pet armadillo to the contest. His spirited performance fell short for the sober judges, who are unfortunately always hardest on the first performers of the night. Fortunately, Stinkfingers already secured a spot in the national finals with a first-place finish in the Portland regional.
A chain of mediocrity followed Stinkfingers. Plaid-pants-wearing Stoney Iommi may have been the Black Sabbath guitarist's namesake, but this Iommi's "Iron Man" was tedious, albeit accurate. Lieutenant Castille's followed with an inspired but horrific version of the theme from Miami Vice. Aside from the white Members Only jacket, the only thing remotely Don Johnson about it was the cheese factor. Dan the Man's rendition was more Bill Nye the Science Guy than Freddie Mercury, and a hirsute Bad Ass Blondini, sporting a black vest with no shirt, tight black and white pants, and the world's worst mullet wig, just didn't have what it takes to impress the judges, who were starting to get tipsy.
Mediocre turned to abysmal with David "Air Guitar" Freeberg, nearly booed off the stage when his performance of "Bad to the Bone" proved to be just bad. Another crowd disappointment, Tiger Claw, failed to come close to the greatness of his appearance last year but still had some of the best technical skills of anyone that night. Taxi-Driver-t-shirt wearing Gobo didn't so much air guitar as half-breakdance to Dead Kennedys with a stiff arm. Torque called the performance a "psychotic punk rock ballet." It could only get better, right?
Wrong. Daddy's Little Smashing Pumpkin came out next in a pink lace baby dress, blond Annie wig with a pink bow, and an overloaded diaper, performed miserably to some kind of death metal song, and responded to the judges' low scores by pulling cooked spaghetti out of his diaper and throwing it at the audience. Another repeat contestant, Downright Dirty Diamond, basically did air guitar warmups, earning himself the most disappointing score of the round, 4.8. Then came the first female contestant, Gloria Stun 'Em, whose rendition of a bizarre metal version of "Kung Fu Fighting" resulted in the best judge comment of the night, from Marc Hawthorne: "It reminded me of the third hand job I ever got in junior high."
A disheartened crowd finally started to get their money's worth with Jammin' J-Bone. Yet another repeat contestant, J-Bone punctuated his performance of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" with a well-executed—perhaps even graceful—stage dive. Shred Nugent, also a returning contestant and last year's San Jose champion, strapped on another contestant's discarded black bra and aired it out, earning the second highest score of the night. The good streak continued with Eleven, whose Doobie Brothers-esque appearance concealed an awesome air guitar hero within.
Things slowed down again with Captain Nowhere, who, in unmistakable hipster attire, went the medley route and earned mixed reactions from the crowd. Then came Madame Deathface, the night's second female contestant, whose blasting vornado and funereal shtick wasn't enough to make up for her awful spastic style.
The lull came to an aburpt end with Shred Begley Junior. Donning black-rimmed plastic glasses with flip-up kanye-style plastic shades, an afro, and a shirt bearing the word "AWESOME," Shred Begley Jr. did just that: shred. Well, shred air. He earned the highest score of the night and inspired the crowd to chant "Awe-some! Awe-some!" as he left the stage. Stringbean made a spirited effort to follow a tough act, choosing a song I think was Avenged Sevenfold. The final two acts in round 1, Dr. Wankenstein (I-Roq Z from 2007) and Sister Lixx simply could not compete.
During the break, while judges tallied up their beverages and the top five were corralled backstage, hometown hero Hotlixx Hulahan performed to an odd medley but showed his chops to the audience's adoration. With that interlude over, it was time for the compulsory round. In 2006 and 2007, the organizers made great picks for the compulsory round: "California Uber Alles" (Dead Kennedys) and "Youth Gone Wild" (Skid Row), respectively. This year, however, I have to question their pick. "I'll Stick Around" (Foo Fighters) may be catchy as hell, but it's hardly a guitar anthem. If we're going to choose the best of the best at this made-up talent show, at least pick something with a little grit. As judge Marc Hawthorne demonstrated for those that could see him in the balcony, "I'll Stick Around" makes a great air drumming song but not so much a good air guitar track. The contestants seemed to have an easier time with this song than previous ones, however, probably because this one was more familiar. (Apparently there are still a few people in California who have never heard "California Uber Alles.")
The first top-five contestant was Captain Nowhere, whose enthusiastic windmills and good technique weren't enough to overcome his on-stage stiffness. Stringbean gave a mediocre and fidgety performance, and couldn't convince the judges that he would be able to win the national championship. Eleven seemed oddly natural with good rhythm, but showed his age with some crazy dance best suited for Golden Gate Park. Unfortunately, all but one judge, Mr. Hawthorne, gave Eleven a score lower than 5. Shred Nugent was great, channeling Dave Grohl to display his unrivaled technical skills.
But the man to beat this night was Shred Begley Jr. Punctuating his awesome performance with a stage dive, Begley received a 10 from John Trippe, another round of "Awesome!" chanting, and was crowned San Francisco US Air Guitar Regional Champion. An elated Begley picked up Bjorn Toroque as the crowd prepared for the free on-stage jam to "Freebird." After a few attempts to lift Begley, the contestants and audience members gathered on stage for air guitar jam managed to get him up off the ground.
Shred Begley, Jr. will now move on to the 2008 Cuervo Black US Air Guitar National Finals, Presented By TouchTunes on August 8 at San Francisco's Grand Ballroom.