At the regional Air Guitar Championship, everything is ridiculous. There's a guy onstage wearing a fur vest and a rhinestone handgun belt buckle, taking shots of Jack Daniels and diddling the air three inches in front of his crotch. But the most ridiculous part is less what's going on tonight than that he'll go to his real-estate office job tomorrow. His name is Glitz Gunner and he won't win tonight's competition. However, his wife will manage to get glitter all over me while his co-workers advise me that, "Glitz Gunner doesn't fuck around."
The Air Guitar Championship is in its twelfth year, and if Tuesday's crowd is any indication, they're doing just fine. It was squeezing-room only down by the stage, but one bartender who was here last year isn't impressed. She says it was more crowded last year.
Denver-based graphic artist Lindsey Kuhn also wasn't impressed. I'm not sure what he was expecting when he agreed to judge this thing, but he went from tolerant to apathetic to silently hostile as the night progressed. Co-judge and acoustic guitarist extraordinaire Sputnik Slovenia tried to compensate for Kuhn's refusal to play along by preceding every score with slam poetry about bestiality or grunting or something equally inexplicable. The third and final judge was none other than Hot Lixx Hulahan, last year's world air guitar champion. He's on tour with U.S. Air Guitar, which moved on to Fort Collins last night. Hot Lixx was the most gracious judge in Denver, stern but fair in his scoring and much more sober than either of the other two, or most people in the place.
"We have a strict drug policy," says the "Master of Airemonies." "You have to be on drugs, or at least fucked up, to do this."
The first competitor of the night started and ended his thirty-second set with mimed bong hits. Two judges, Hot Lixx and Kuhn, gave him a 4.20 out of 6.
All the sets are that short, which is probably a good thing. You pay $17 to go to this and it's at a real venue, and my expectations were way too high. I don't know what I was expecting, but with very few exceptions the people on stage were no more impressive than any standard drunk would be. More shirtless, certainly, and tighter pansted, but their moves were all pretty boring. A Diamond Dave leap here, a power slide there, and a whole lot of painfully obvious sexual innuendo. Did you know you play a guitar near your penis? And, if there's no guitar, than it's sort of looks like masturbating? Ohh, man, that shit is so funny forty times over the course of an hour.
2005 Denver champion Big Rig retook the crown this year by showing up in nut-hugging silver pants and a Whitesnake muscle tee and popping confetti into the crowd throughout his performance. He sealed a victory in the finals with a costume change into short shorts with the word AIR written out in lights across the ass. He climbed a set piece, the stage lights cut out, and there it was, A-I-R, and the day was won even before he started back in on the confetti.
Big Rig has a three-year-old kid. He's retiring from the air guitar circuit after this year. I don't envy the man the day his kid discovers Youtube.
After the winners are announced, it is air guitar tradition for all the competitors to come back on stage, and bring their friends and supports with them, for an extended air jam session. The tour only comes through once a year, and I imagine this part is the real payoff for most of these guys. The judges and MC spent most of their time mocking people (Slovenia at one point gave someone a 4.4 because, "I want to shoot you with a .44") and the crowd was quick to dish out boos, so I can't imagine the actual competition was particularly rewarding for anyone except first and maybe second place. But here, at the end, they get to share the stage with a whole bunch of their shameless, horrible-at-real-guitar brethren.
The whole night felt sort of like walking through a portal into the Rock Band video game. No one's playing real music and all the performers look like cartoons from the 70s. Even the crowd's raucous mood swings felt like a handful of canned tracks. It seems impossible that this could actually attract a crowd, and clearly a large portion of the audience belonged in the entourage of one air guitarist or another. But I think the MC got to the real appeal when he said, "These people are here to injure themselves for your entertainment." Injure their dignity, mostly.