US Air Guitar: Bay Area Regional Championship
628 Divisadero St (btwn Hayes & Grove) [Map]
Drinks consumed: not enough
We all have things we do when nobody is looking, in the privacy of our bathrooms and living rooms and bedrooms. Sometimes, we catch ourselves doing them in public. Embarrassed, we stick our hands in our pockets or adjust our hair so as pretend we weren't just doing what we were doing. The Air Guitar Championships, however, have made a competition out of one of these habits. Contestants fight the natural instinct to hide a tendency toward rocking out, choosing instead to flaunt it in fantastic ways, from zebra print skin suits to torn tunic buttons to electrical tape on cut off jeans. The annual Bay Area regional championship at the Independent is a hell of a spectacle.
The competition itself consists of two rounds. In the first "freestyle" round, air guitarists perform 60 seconds of a song. It can be any part of the song—guitar solos are encouraged and appreciated by the audience—but the contestant must play only air guitar. No air drums, air bass, air finger cymbals, etc., and no backup bands. Air roadies are permitted but must leave the stage when the performance begins. The second round is the compulsory round in which competitors perform one minute of the same surprise song chosen by air guitar organizers. This round separates the air guitar zeros from the air guitar heroes as contestants are challenged to perform a song they may have never heard before.
The competitors are judged in three areas: technical merit, stage presence, and "airness," defined on the website as "the extent to which a performance transcends the imitation of a real guitar and becomes and art form in and of itself." San Francisco's panel of three judges lacked on-stage air guitar experience but have made careers out of judging others and drinking heavily: city editor of the Onion's AV Club, Marc Hawthorne; FecalFace.com's John Trippe; and SF Weekly music editor Jennifer Maerz. Despite the flack they took from the audience, the judges have a tough job. Not only do they have to choose the night's winner from a field of mediocre talent, but they have to choose a star who will be able to win in New York City and move on to represent the United States at the World Air Guitar Championships in Finland. The judges' pick last year went on to win the US Championships and represent the Bay Area and the USA at the Worlds.
This year's competition opened with an introduction to air guitar and a demonstration of the art from retired competitive air guitarist and emcee Bjorn Turoque. He performed Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" with invisible backup from an air bassist and an air drummer he pulled out of the audience. (Note: air bands are in direct violation of the competition's rules, but you can't have air "War Pigs" without an air bassist.) The official competition began with Shred Nugent, who had tons of heart and a big curly wig to match, but fell short on technical merit. Alaskan Thunderfuck was up next and his white trash/Joe Dirt persona failed to impress the judges and the audience even when he lost his fake teeth. Like the head cheerleader showing up at the prom in the same dress as the class valedictorian, two contestants appeared in yellow Game of Death Billy Lo track suits. Glenny Kravitz, the first of the night's two Bruce Lees, followed Alaskan Thunderfuck, and the other Bruce Lee came on stage with him for a little pre-song air martial arts. Kravitz's performance, however, was lackluster, and with his old lady sunglasses he more closely resembled Yoko Ono than Lenny Kravitz.
The fourth contestant, Jammin' J-Bone, finally offered the audience what they wanted despite the fact that he looks as though he's been shooting heroin in bus station bathrooms since the late 70s. His rendition of the Foo Fighters' "Monkey Wrench" elicited riotous applause and unanimous rock horns from the audience. The judges agreed to some extent, putting him in a tie for second place going into Round 2. Bruce Lee number 2, The Metal Dragon, wasn't as good but he kept the momentum rolling and the audience from getting out of hand. Ricky Stinkfingers (known last year as "Stinky Ricky") followed and blew the audience away with a rousing "Rebel Yell." Clearly, Ricky established himself as the audience favorite with his energy and curious bulge.
Despite a fan club in the front row donning matching t-shirts, Downright Dirty Diamond was a disappointment. As judge Marc Hawthorne put it, he looked more like he was playing a Smiths song than a guitar god classic. The first female contestant, Rôqhelle, looked like she took the night off from writing emo poetry to compete and her little-girl-going-to-bed schtick didn't make it any better. The audience was absolutely brutal to Rai Tuigar Sckor who, with a little more practice, could emerge as a star next year's man to beat. He was followed by the solid but lukewarm performances of Tiger Claw and Judas Priestess. It should be noted, though, that Tiger Claw's rock-classical song selection allowed him to show off his amazing technical skills. The airness just wasn't there.
The final registered contestant, Mr. Fine Body, air guitared his way to first place after round 1 with a fantastic performance that was well received by the audience and two of three judges. Everyone was clearly as mesmerized by his zebra-print skinsuit and black thong as I was. After Fine Body, they opened up a few wildcard spots to members of the audience, most of which were only noteworthy for their lack of talent. Just one stood out, and that was Pussy Galore (affectionately referred to by the judges as "Rough Draft") who chose "Stop" by Jane's Addiction from the list of songs but clearly didn't know it. She made up for lack of skill by tearing the buttons off the top of her shirt and doing some kind of strange drunken stumble around the stage. Painful, but enough to get her into round 2.
A guest performance from Hot Lixx Hulahan led us into the compulsory round, where the five highest scoring contestants from round 1 were called back to the stage to perform sixty seconds of the surprise song. This year's selection, "Youth Gone Wild" by Skid Row, posed a challenge for most of those who had moved on to round two. The ladies, Pussy Galore and Rôqhelle, were booed mainly because they refused to remove their tops to make up for lack of skill. Ricky Stinkfingers and Jammin' J-Bone settled a tie with a coin toss and Jammin' J-Bone sent Ricky Stinkfingers onto the stage first. Ricky opened his powerful performance by kicking a full beer into the audience. J-Bone followed the liquid theme and started his performance by spitting a mouthful of water at the audience, much to the chagrin of a poor girl standing in the line of fire in the front row. Harsh words from the judges sparked an argument between J-Bone and Hawthorne and prompted the audience to throw beer and loose change at the stage—and toward the judges. This also led to an air guitar performance by judge John Trippe, who unsuccessfully tried to hide his lack of technical skill by lighting a cigarette and running around the stage to Danzig's "Mother."
The leader going into round 2, Mr. Fine Body, choked, ending his hopes of air supremacy with 60 seconds of eighties hair rock. Without enough time to grow a real one, Mr. Fine Body opted for a fake handlebar mustache that was unable to handle his extreme airness. He finished with the lowest score of the round and seemed genuinely disappointed with himself and his faulty mustache.
It was Ricky Stinkfingers with the best performance (and probably the best name) who came out on top and will represent the Bay Area in New York City. Mr. Stickfingers rounded out the second round with the highest score, enough combined with his first round score to win the competition. He celebrated with members of the audience who were invited to come on stage for the honorary free air session to "Freebird." Talent scouts were no doubt checking out the crowd in anticipation of next year's air guitar championships. Overall, the competition this year was much weaker and less creative than last year, but any event where it's okay to scream "YOU SUCK, GET OFF THE STAGE!" and throw a beer or flip the bird is a great one.
Koshi's full photo set can be viewed here.