The 3rd Annual Milwaukee Air Guitar Challenge
“I’m hoping for spandex. Anyone who wears spandex on stage is getting bonus points from me.”
I’m chatting with Margaret “Pezzettino“ Stutt about her role this evening as a “celebrity judge” for the 3rd Annual Milwaukee Air Guitar Showdown at Stonefly. It’s the day after Christmas, and we’re sipping PBRs and High Lifes (High Lives?), waiting for this show to get on the road. While we discuss the evening’s potential for ostentatious stagewear, a remarkably fit looking, precisely groomed and tanned gentleman in ripped jeans concentrates as he listens to his ear buds. Margaret and I nod approvingly. This man has obviously come to win.
His chance to prove himself comes at 11:30, about an hour and a half later than the advertised start time. Maybe, it’s because we’re only a day removed from Christmas, or maybe it’s the steep $10 door charge, but audience members and contestants are a little hard to come by tonight. But eventually, enough last-minute air-shredders are recruited, and enough people have trickled in that we’re ready to roll. The other celebrity judges are introduced along with Margaret: Pabst/Riverside/Turner Hall talent buyer Matt Beringer, and DA Wallach of air guitarists Chester French.
The competition kicks off with a man calling himself “Phantom Axe.” My scorecard has him earning bonus points for losing his hat early in the performance, a 60-second edit (per contest rules) of Wilco’s “At Least That’s What She Said.” Matt applauds him for “tugging at an indie-rocker’s alt-country heart” for his song choice, while the ’90s-era Touch & Go Records indie-rocker in me dies just a little bit.
The judges quickly slip into American Idol-style roles, with Margaret as a less-drunk Paula Abdul and Matt as the obvious Simon Cowell. One of the few girls in the competition gets knocked by Matt and DA for playing “leg guitar” instead of “air guitar,” but Margaret sticks up for the ladies and gives her high marks. So, we have conflicting philosophies regarding what constitutes proper air guitar. I like it. Controversy!
The field eventually gets narrowed down to four finalists: The Culinary Salesman, who worked both drum riser and Stonefly floor during his spirited take on the Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love;” Airis Hilton, who rocks a violin bow and a lab coat (props!); and the clear favorites of the competition — J-Chord (our ripped-jeans tanning enthusiast from earlier), and last year’s champ, Sanjar the Destroyer, resplendent in his fringe-bedecked forearm sleeves and “STD” T-shirt (awesome). He apparently hails from Minneapolis, which explains why he looks vaguely like Har Mar Superstar. Sanjar’s opening-round performance was punctuated by some Michael Angelo/Steve Vai-style multi-neck finger-tapping, which gets me on my feet, but DA doesn’t get what he was going for and marks him down (c’mon, DA, watch some Nitro videos and try again). Margaret, who’s finally gotten something resembling Spandex, gives him her highest marks of the night. Still, Sanjar’s got his work cut out for him after J-Chord’s technically flawless approximation of the guitar solo from “Beat It.” The absurdity of the contestants being praised for their technical precision pleases me greatly.
Our four finalists all sample the 60-second edit of “Welcome to the Jungle” they’re required to rock to, and one by one they take it to the house. Contestants are popping their shirts off left and right. Airis Hilton manages to pop off his collared shirt while leaving his tie on! Hell, yes! The finalists are bringing the damage. J-Chord bypasses the theatrics and just peels his off before he even starts, perhaps to influence the voting of our female judge (or, based on his outfit, maybe he’s trying to influence the guys? Or both? Hey, it’s 2010, y’all). While I don’t think his performance tops Airis Hilton’s, his combined score from both rounds is enough to dethrone Sanjar and take this year’s title, netting J-Chord a solid $100 and a slot in the regionals, being hosted in our fair city in April.
Despite the thin crowd, the Milwaukee Air Guitar Showdown was silly fun. Those regionals happen on Tax Day, April 15, so once your online filing is complete, see the pride of Brew Town, J-Chord, make his bid for nationals. (Yes, you read that right — there are not only nationals, but WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS for this stuff. Crazy! J’s going to need to stay glued to those ear buds to step up to the next level.)