Standing off stage, with his moment about to arrive, he could hear the clamor of a thousand fans waiting. They had been this way for hours. Yet the local favorite wanted silence. He had a minute to bide. So he retreated. Through a side door and past a huge room fan, he found his solitude under a stairwell. No one could see him there. Quickly, he ran through his routine one last time. He knew the moves. The only thing left undecided was how -- not if -- he would execute his signature move.
Ready now, he returned to stage right. When his name was announced the crowd welcomed him with a thunderous roar. He strode forward. Then he grabbed hold of that adrenaline. And his air guitar.
With his long dark brown hair drenched like a sopping mop and fraying every which way, the barefoot, sweaty, hyper-charged air guitarist known as Nordic Thunder snapped the neck of his air guitar back and forth and flexed his muscles while feverishly plucking imaginary strings to the Motley Crue song "Kickstart My Heart."
The crowd at the Metro nightclub, packed tight, belonged to him. A four-time regional champion, Nordic Thunder, whose real name is Justin Howard, had seized a moment he had long waited for. Until this night, he had never reached the final round. But on this Saturday night in late July, he had, as they call it, achieved "airness."
For good measure, he capped his performance with a power slide across the stage on his bare knees, the signature move. The crowd, which consisted of locals, roadies, fellow air guitarists, his mother and plenty of curious folks, thrust their fists in the air with index fingers and pinkies pointed upward to form the universal sign for "Rock On." Nordic Thunder’s knees had started to bleed. From the balcony, an awestruck judge exclaimed that he had "smoke and mist coming from (him)."
And just like that, the US Air Guitar National Finals had its crowning moment, nearly three hours after it had started, long after 21 other finalists from across the country had taken the stage in their flamboyant costumes and alter egos, had showered the crowd with free cans of cheap beer, confetti guns, smoke, candy, sweat, saliva and even one crowd surfer.
This was the Academy Awards, Fraggle Rock, Saturday Night Live, WWE and a Comedy Central roast all rolled into one evening. It was funny, competitive, vile, sexually charged and 18 to enter for a reason.
Nordic Thunder was the last guitarist standing as the newly minted US Air Guitar National Champion, a title that earned him a trip to compete in next month's Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. It was a title that came with no money or endorsement deal but plenty of pride and admiration from his peers.
Howard describes his victory as such:
"To be on a stage at the Metro, one of the best venues in all of Chicago, is ecstasy at its finest. I mean, the energy from the crowd that I was receiving and giving back, it's just a joyous, awesome ... I don't know how to put it into words."
Howard, who turns 28 in early August, has a competitive spirit to him. Born and raised in Casper, Wyo., he grew up playing not organized sports but NES video games. He has 400 of them, and he played them all until he won.
Like many athletes, he always wanted to be the best at something. He cites Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan as being the best in their respective sports and wonders what it must feel like to make talent look so effortless. That’s what Howard strives for with air guitar.
"From the very beginning, my main goal was to be as technically perfect as possible," he says. "And I have no shame. I've been booed on stage and I have been laughed at, and I really don’t care about that. When I come on stage I really do feel completely natural and at home. I feel like I belong on the stage."
Doing sketch comedy in his free time, Howard knows how to work with a crowd. In air guitar, he calls crowd support his rocket fuel.
"The energy that you feel form the crowd is like a drug, man," Howard says. "And I feel like I'm sharing it with the audience. It's a mutual thing. I really love the feeling that you're connecting with a room full of strangers on a weird level because I'm playing an invisible guitar. Trying to wrap your head around that is like, 'How is this happening?'"
That's the way he felt the night of July 23 at the Metro, a 1,100-person capacity concert hall in the heart of Wrigleyville that has played host to artists like James Brown and the Ramones to R.E.M. and The Killers. On the night of the National Finals, it leant its stage to a group of people who do not consider themselves in the category of wannabes and washed up rockers, but instead celebrities in their own right, from the blue collars to artistic types that have earned cult status in their growing world of air guitar.
"You can look at it as theater of the absurd, you can look at it as comedy, you can look at it just as rock fans where the fan gets to be on stage instead, but more and more as we do it, a lot of the people we get on the stage we know them all really well, the crowd knows them well," says US Air Guitar co-founder Kriston Rucker. "Because I think at the beginning it was sort of like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe there’s an organization that takes this seriously.' But we've done it long enough now that that's not news in a way. And what's news is more about the stars, who’s going to win, the intrigue of what the routines are, which is better because it’s getting to be a little bit mature of a sport with the recognizable names. An unusual sport -- that’s the way we look at it."
Air Guitar is an unusual sport in the sense that anyone can do it and, let's be honest, everyone has done at one time or another, whether in the privacy of your own home, with friends or subconsciously. The only difference is that some enjoy it as a form of competition and camaraderie.
Two days before the finals, US Air Guitar threw a "secret show" Dark Horse invitational at Parlour Bar, a small gay joint in the Edgewater neighborhood. There, a dozen or so of the "best of the rest" air guitarists gathered to compete for the last spot in the finals. More than an hour before the competition, Seattle resident Chuck Mong was standing outside the bar practicing his routine, cigarette dangling from his mouth, in a cutoff Dead Kennedys black T-shirt and black Converse sneakers with a skull and bones covering the logo.
Inside the dimly lit bar, everyone seemed to know everyone and the scene played out like a bunch of old college pals reuniting for a night of partying and storytelling. Among the night’s hopefuls was Boston resident Matt Lebel, who goes by the stage name Captain Airhab, a moniker he had tattooed a year ago on his right arm that resembles the NBA logo. Lebel, a skinny soft spoken guy decked out in a white captain’s hat, Bermuda shirt, pink Converse sneakers and a curly red handlebar mustache that inched toward his eyelids, found air guitar while working in the receiving department of a bookstore when he came across the book "To Air Is Human" by Bjorn Turoque, probably the sport’s biggest celebrity.
When the lineup order was decided, Lebel retreated outside with his iPod so he could listen to the song he was about to perform one last time. Each air guitarist brings his or her own one-minute edit of a song of their choice, which means many if not all air guitarists have had countless hours of practice time to perfect their routine, from the plucking and strumming to their body language. They’re judged on three criteria: technical merit, stage presence and airness.
What makes a great song, of course, is subjective, although a majority of competitors opt for some type of 80s hair metal or new-age hardcore. Basically anything with heavy guitar.
"If you know your song you can just kind of figure it out, improvise," says Lebel, who plays guitar in a punk rock band.
Lebel drew the 10th slot out of 18, so there was time to kill. And he didn’t mind the wait one bit.
"The judges get a little looser with the scores," he says, "and going first kind of sucks."
What makes a good guitarist is subjective. Ideally it's someone who can bring it all together, although commanding a crowd, playing to the beat and baring your soul typically will win everyone over.
What makes a bad air guitarist? Ask most people on tour and gauge the vibe from the crowds, and that's more defined.
"Someone who's not supportive of their fellow competitors and doesn't fully appreciate being with such a fun, crazy, weird, wild group of people," Howard said. "Also, someone who's afraid of looking like a complete idiot in front of a massive crowd."
Howard, who arrived during the competition dressed in drag to support a drag queen friend of his, did not need the last-chance competition. He’s an old pro and has what would be considered a more regimented approach to his craft. He practices an hour a day, which includes a few breathers because of the amount of sweat he works up. He likes to choose technical songs -- ones where a lot of notes are hit and involve more picking than strumming.
"My routine is glued in my brain," Howard says. "I know every single move of every single second and where I will be on the stage at any given point. So if you want to come out and look like you’ve got your (stuff) together you've really got to have your (stuff) together, so I do my best to make sure that happens." The only person who gets to see Howard's routine prior to a competition is his girlfriend, who he calls "viciously, brutally honest."
Whether they're motivated by a drive to win or perfect their craft, talk to an air guitarist and, while the answers tend to be more colorful and less scripted, you will come across the same cliches as you would in a pro locker room.
Throughout the three days of festivities, it was common to hear phrases like "setting the tone," "leaving it all out on the stage," and "the bar keeps getting higher."
And, as was the case for Washington, D.C. winner Tommy Fretless, air guitarists were not immune to injuries. Fretless performed with a leg in a cast after breaking an ankle during a rehearsal. He wasn’t the first to suffer an air guitar related injury. A few years ago, a Minneapolis air guitarist broke both legs after jumping off a drum riser. And in 2008, a Brooklyn air guitarist had a toe amputated after dislocating and tearing all the tissue after it got caught and twisted in a metal chair.
"The way I've always described air guitar to people is it's one-third rock concert, one-third comedy show and one-third athletic event," Fretless says. "I think everyone has a different percentage they put into it -- some people focus more on the comedy aspect and I focus more on the athleticism -- but we all rock pretty (freakin') hard."
Four hours before the Finals were to start, all 22 competitors gathered on stage for a pre-competition press conference. Dressed in full costume and having transformed into their alter egos, the air guitarists' personalities, stage names and outfits - the whole schtick - looked ripe for a VH1 reality show.
The seven pages worth of bios handed out prior to the presser, which were written by the contestants themselves, details how one air guitarist has a medical marijuana license, another is the son of a trapeze artist for a traveling circus and another is a gun-toting ultra liberal who was raised on a diet of classic rock and Jack Daniels.
The air guitarist Thundergland joked about how his mother made his costume, which consisted of black tight underwear with a strategically placed battery powered lightning bolt. New York regional champion Aristotle said his goal was to lose his virginity on tour. And Houston native Brock McRock, a husky man who enjoys strutting around shirtless in a pair of oversized chaps that have mustaches on either side, called his exercise routine a blend of playing Xbox and eating Ben & Jerry’s and chocolate covered pretzels.
There were serious answers and back and forth dialogue with the media, but there was no breaking character for anyone. The most serious answer came from co-founder Cedric Devitt, who said that the goal for the US Air Guitar Association is to win the World Championships.
"That's pretty much all we care about," he says. "The only thing we care about is winning."
Winning and some corporate sponsorship would be nice.
Devitt and Rucker, who both have a background in advertising and brand management, are currently funding this year’s tour out of their own pockets at a cost they chose not to make public. They have to pay for each venue, airfare for competitors who reach the National Finals and airfare and lodging for the national champ’s trip to Finland.
"It's not cheap and it doesn’t entirely pay for itself just from ticket sales," Rucker says. "But we’re mostly trying to not lose a ton of money and have fun. That’s sort of the main purpose."
There’s been no shortage of fun since the association’s inception in 2003, when it hosted two regionals, one in Los Angeles and another in New York. Air guitar has since grown in popularity, as the tour has had as many as 22 regional competitions, which typically run through March to July, and wrapped with 18 regionals in 17 cities this year. (San Francisco had such a large turnout that a second show was added.)
US Air Guitar has had its share of sponsors in the past, from Sabrett hot dogs and Boone’s Farm to TouchTunes digital jukeboxes and Cuervo Black, which even sponsored a tour bus one year.
"We're always trying and sometimes succeeding,” said Rucker, 40, who with Devitt runs US Air Guitar remotely in New York. "We'll see. I think at some point it would be good to find a brand that would fit and be willing to do it more than one year."
Bjorn Turoque, a former world champion and author, is the Master of Airemonies for the National Finals. He’s charismatic, handsome, engaging and the anti-Ryan Seacrest. And he has a way about him that keeps everyone attuned to what’s happening on stage.
The opening act is a choreographed parody of the Bonnie Tyler hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart" that Turoque and one of the judges, Hot Lixx Hulahan, himself a retired air guitarist, rock out to while switching the hook to "Total Eclipse of the Guitar."
After each guitarist performs, Turoque gives his two cents before bringing the contestant before the judges, whose comments included "You're my mom’s favorite," "I wonder what Jay Cutler would have done if he had your heart," and "That was a classic dirtball performance."
Flipping off and cursing the judges were common sights and did not get you removed from the premises.
But the camaraderie amongst the guitarists was undeniable and front and center. Howard opened up his one-bedroom apartment to seven other air guitarists, guys traveling all the way from Colorado Springs to New York City. He’d never met several of them before the weekend but it didn’t stop him from leaving a spare key under his doormat so they could make themselves at home before he got off of work.
Howard described air guitar competitions as a fraternity of men and women who share the same bizarre interest. It perfectly put into context the final moment of the night. After Nordic Thunder was crowned champion and strapped on a championship belt, he was mobbed by each of his 21 competitors. They gave hugs, back slaps and rubbed his head in congratulations. Then they lifted him on their shoulders and gave him a bottle of champagne. Soon, Howard’s mother, Pam, who traveled from Wyoming, joined him on stage for an embrace.
Howard had taken the National Finals seriously from the start, calling it an honor and a responsibility to represent his country overseas. He even has an eagle tattooed on his chest. And US Air Guitar prides itself on world peace, as it’s common to hear those involved use the line, "You can't hold a gun if you're holding an air guitar."
So for Howard to have his mother see him succeed was a momentous occasion.
"To see my mother be proud of something I'm doing -- even if it's something as ridiculous as being the best at playing an invisible guitar," he says, "is pretty awesome."
-- Email Chris Silva at email@example.com