Boston Air Guitar Blog

Recap: 2015 US Air Guitar National Finals

Posted by Camille Barichello on Mon, Aug 17, 2015 @ 09:15 AM }

Finally, the big show, the crowning acheivement of the 2015 US Air Guitar season - US National Finals were contested on Saturday, August 8th at the Hawthorne Theatre in Portland OR. Despite a truly dumb beer setup (the bar and drinking area was way at the back, all-ages [and thus boozeless] in the front), the show managed to go on and the air guitarists still managed to pull off their routines. Hey, you wouldn't host a swim meet without a pool, would you?

So once the regular intro stuff gets out of the way, the defending champ, Airistotle, gets introduced. And he is carried onto the stage reclining across the arms of 4 other air guitarists. Magic. But he must be swiftly whisked away, because it's time to get started.

The first competitors are the people who advanced from the Dark Horse, in order (5th to 1st). This means that The Marquis kicks it off, and the judges more or less have to get their scores up to a real level right away, because he's nobody's pity entrant. The Marquis always brings it every time, and by "it" I mean he wears tights. But really though, he set the bar high. The people by whom he was judged were retired air guitar star Fender Splendor, Portlandia's Christine Levine and longtime Chicago judge whom audiences love to hate, Ben Bowman. He was up to his old tricks, incidentally; the judges got screamed at a lot. Mostly by King Slayer. Anyway, the Marquis got himself two 5.2s and a 5.4; those are some going-first scores.

But Ben Bowman managed to go downhill from there. Whalin Big Air came up next and, while, sure, his wings had a bit of a malfunction and one drooped a little, that didn't warrant the scores he got: from the regular judges, sure, a 5.2 and 5.3, fine, I can deal with that, but from Ben Bowman, a 4.9. Come on, Ben Bowman.

The judging commentary didn't help me out at all with Pork Sword. I wanted to know if they had taken into consideration the bass-behind-the-back move, but no one mentioned it... but I can't tell if they just didn't notice, or didn't care. 5.5, 5.3, 5.7.

I understand most of Van Dammage's routine. I understand that he died at the beginning, then removed his serape and hat to reveal an undead mariachi. I understand that he had squibs to spell out "VD" on his chest (instead of chest hair, which he has used in the past). What I don't understand is how his NIPPLE FELL OFF at the end. That is not how nipples work! I don't know if the judges saw that or what, but he got a 5.1, 5.3, and 5.4, which... c'mon.

I'm glad that Jim Hatfield made it all the way into the finals, which means he got to be judged by a lot of different groups of judges, ranging from people who have never seen competitive air guitar before to veteran judges, ex-competitors, and people who are at every show. This was a plus, because not everyone gets it when you're being meta; it helps to have people who know what you're parodying and have a context to place it in. I think, I think these judges got it, because 5.5, 5.6, and 5.3 are not bad scores for this early in the game.

The huge cheers for Erik Ittar and his marionette rig belied the fact that he actually got a somewhat lower score than a couple of the performers before him: 5.3, 5.2, and 5.6.

Into the non-Dark-Horse portion of the evening! The Airtiste started us off with his guitar-stand work of art (airt? no, that sounds horrible), and, in a surprise move, used an empty beer cup as a slide and didn't get disqualified for use of a prop. Not that I wanted him to be, but the second I saw that cup in his hand, I started getting really nervous. But no - the judges gave him 5.7s across the board.

Not sure if Airistotle, as the defending champ, got to pick his own spot in the order (as he would have at a semifinal), but if he did, he decided to go super early. Then, just like in 2012 in Denver, he went with a song that was a little heavier than his usual pop-punk picks. But if you don't remember what happened in 2012, let me remind you: he won. So. This was not an out-of-left-field choice for the dude. The judges liked it, for two 5.8s and a 5.7.

If you're the type of guy who believes in a "friend zone" and that the default setting for women is to sleep with you, you probably also own a fedora. It was, therefore, fitting that Friend Zone came out wearing one, along with his signature chest-signage proclaiming himself a Nice Guy. There is seriously nothing I don't love about this character, despite my constant and eternal flagwaving for the Windhammer persona. The judges, on the other hand, might have preferred the original recipe Windhammer; 5.3, 5.4, 5.6.

New character (not newcomer) of the year, Mom Jeans Jeanie, came up next with her JC Penney bag full of fruit snacks. Before getting started, she took a quick family photo - that'll go on the piano - and then ripped into "She's White" and just crushed as usual. I know I said this before when I first saw her on the Chicago semis livestream, but her moves are so perfect because they are the moves your mom would do if she was trying to play air guitar. There's this one little back-kick with a head toss that slays me every time. 5.6 and two 5.7s for Mom Jeans!

She was followed by her polar opposite. Look, if mom jeans signal that "you are no longer a sexual being - you're a mom!" - Tony Tapatio would like to remind you that he is a very sexual being. He may have even given Mom Jeans the flutters. He threw confetti... and his underwear. If you catch it, it's like catching the bouquet at a wedding, except instead of meaning you'll be the next one to get married, it means you'll be the next person in the audience to get lucky. The judges were also smitten for straight 5.7s.

Let me digress a moment to talk about venue setup. Ideally, important competitions are held in a place with a balcony or other spot with a full view of the stage, so that the judges can sit there and not miss a thing. The Hawthorne Theatre, unluckily, did not have that option, so the judges' table was on the floor, and no doubt people stood between them and the stage sometimes. This was a major bummer in the case of Cold Steel Renegade, whose footwork is amazing and informs his performance in a big way - but they probably couldn't see it at all. That's the only excuse I can think of for giving him the undeservedly-low scores he got: 5.2, 5.2, and 5.3.

Doug "The Thunder" Stroock, perpetual bridesmaid, came onstage to chants of "Num-ber 2!"... but left to chants of "Num-ber 1!". That guitar-eating move kills every time, I'm telling you. Did it kill the judges, though? IT DID NOT. In yet another baffling display of low-ballery, he got two 5.5s and a 5.6.

Another competitor with a killer move, Rocky Rhoads hit the stage and that roundoff she does just gets all the points from me. It did not get all the points from the judges - 5.3, 5.5, 5.5 - but the highlight here was that Fender Splendor, in giving her a 5.3, told her that she did well because "women have a lot to prove" in air guitar. Considering the score he gave her, this comes off as very "you did well FOR A GIRL," but the best part here is that Bjorn Turoque, using the power vested in him as Master of Airemonies, shut that line of reasoning down straight away, announcing that air guitar is for everyone. Sure, he made a smart mouth remark right afterwards about how if he didn't say something, someone else would - doubtless a reference to Rocky having it out with Nordic when he gave a similarly ill-chosen score rationale last year - but we will take what we can get, here, and I believe him that he does want to make sure air guitar is welcoming to all participants. Hosts should always feel empowered to tell a judge to knock it off, if the judge is spouting some bullshit, and I give him a big ol' 6.0 for that.
An update to this: evidently I misunderstood what Fender Splendor was going for. He has explained that he was saying that women are up against a male-dominated scene in air guitar - that his comment wasn't intended as anything other than a congratulation for taking on a tough situation. So I apologize for making him out to be the kind of person who says the sort of comment that I read it as. Clearly that's not so. I'm still giving Bjorn the thumbs up, because he clearly took the original comment wrong in the same way I did, and had that been the actual meaning of the remark, his response would have been very good.

Next up, your future tiny overlord, Tyranicus, Lord of the End Times. His routine exposed which judges were looking for schtick and which for technicality; sure, he shouts at the crowd of groveling minions at first, and his costume is pretty serious, but once he gets started playing, it's just about shredding and metal. His array of scores ranged 5.4, 5.8, 5.6, but it won't matter once he crushes our puny civilization and makes us all his serfs.

Blaze BaadAxxe, a veteran performer but first-time Nationals-er, rolled out and did an involved routine of selecting his air guitar before getting down to it. The "Cool Dad" joke got made a few times, including by me, which probably does him a disservice - just because he's older than, say, me, doesn't mean it's time for dad jokes. But you know he's the coolest guy in his circle of friends. He has a flame shirt and yellow sunglasses. The flame shirt keeps the sunglasses from going too far in a Bono direction. Despite dad jokes, the judges gave him 5.5, 5.7, 5.3.
I just thought of something. There is now a contingent of older gents who compete; there are some older ladies involved with air guitar, but as mothers (to their own children and to the community at large). Other than Smart Old Broad, they don't compete. Why not, ladies of a certain age? Get yourselves on the stage.

Back to the show! And back to my earlier point about footwork. Seth Leibowitz has it. The judges couldn't see it. He got straight 5.6s. Seems pretty clear.

I finally got the chance to see The Wizard's first round (after being occupied shovelling pudding into Captain Airhab's pants during his routine at the NYC semi) and it was absolutely great. May I reiterate that his staff is made of beer cans. He is a beermage. He summons his guitar, then he rips into an edit that, in lesser hands, wouldn't really turn into much. But of course a wizard can turn anything into anything else. He got hosed by 2 out of 3 judges with a 5.5, 5.7, 5.4. At least he was in good company?


DC's Shreddy Boop has never been to Nationals before. It seems surprising that she has never qualified, but I guess DC has a lot of talented people competing there and it might just not have been her year until now. But she deserves to be on the national stage, and I'm glad she came this time. She got some dumb scores, 5.4, 5.5, 5.3, despite her energetic and on-time Greenday routine, but she, and we, won out by having her there at all. She described the trip as a game changer, and I feel strongly that this is true for most competitors who come to Nationals for the first time. Suddenly, the whole community is there embracing you, welcoming you to the fold and the stage, going on adventures with you, and generally treating you like you belong. I love how well this community treats newcomers (and people who, like Shreddy Boop, are new to the gang but not to the sport), and that's why I think it's so important that we make it easier for people to go to Nationals for the first time. They'll make a priority of it the next time.

Time for Rookie of the Year Witness! His story is my favorite this year. Badgered into signing up as a walk-on in Nashville (by none other than Nordic Thunder), he went on to qualify for semis and again for Nationals with his hard-driving moves and his snazzy Scottish formalwear. The man has a Prince Charlie jacket and a kilt. He wears the right pieces together. Respect. This time out, his kilt stayed down and no one got any unauthorized glimpses, but I think he's got to tame that right hand. He still got good scores - 5.7s and 5.8s (I didn't catch the last score but it was in that ballpark) - but he can't be guaranteed to run into judges who won't factor in the fretwork. I'm sure he'll be back next year, though, which is fantastic.

Flying FinnI have been so stoked on Flying Finn this year (well, and every year). This year marks his 10th year competing - he has children younger than that - and he came in with purpose, ready to win. His routine was on point and his fringe was a-flyin'. The judges were... mixed. 5.7, 5.6, 5.8. I have no idea where that 5.6 came from; that was from our celebrity Portlandia judge, who announced flat-out that she had no idea what she was doing. Yes, you do. You were taught the basics of judging; you know what to look for and what doesn't matter; you're a rational human being who can compare different things to each other. Don't cop out just because you're new to the air guitar world. Anyone can be a good judge if they pay attention and don't just throw numbers around.

Pride of DC, The Shred took the stage! His pop-culture-referential, dance-inspired routine blew the doors off for two judges... although Fender Splendor apparently wanted more air guitar and less whipping and nae nae-ing. Some competitors really need a second round to prove that they have levels and layers - if the first round is theatrical or schticky or even follows the same pattern from years past, that can cause some judges to pass on you - but if you get the chance to go on to round 2, you can showcase your pure skill without any accoutrements. I put The Shred in this category. If not everyone is taken with a routine that pulls in the top pop hits of the year, and that's valid, they need to see what he can do when faced with a second-round song he hasn't heard before. His scores: 5.5, 5.8, and highest of the night so far, 5.9. So clearly at least two judges wanted to see more!

More super pure air guitar was on the way with Midnight Maniaxe. Chicago judges preferred that to elaborate routines; these judges? Ehhh... not so much. 5.4, 5.5, 5.7. In context, those scores aren't that low, but they had given higher ones all around, so it's fair to say that straight-up technicality wasn't the one mode of performance they were waiting for.

Air JesusAnd closing out round 1, our lord and savior himself, Air Jesus. He spent $200 to bring the giant baulks of wood that made up his cross to Portland and had a small army of disciples helping him to assemble it and bring him onto the stage. I thought I had seen his routine before since I'd watched it on two livestreams. You haven't seen this one until you see it in person. It was so, so good. It was also smart: dangling from a cross, you avoid the problem that befell CSR and Seth Leibowitz, since the judges can see your feet even if they're sitting on the floor. They gave him a 5.5, 5.8, 5.7, which means at least one of them is going to hell. We already know that Ben Bowman is, so that means two of them are (since he actually gave a pretty good score this time).

Halftime proceeded according to the usual rules of halftime - a demonstration of prowess by Nordic Thunder, followed by a generalized throwdown by some of the night's competitors, some dark horses, and Air Bear, to "Party Hard." I got my hand stepped on at one point. Frowny face.

Round two! Your competitors:

Tied for 4th: Mom Jeans Jeanie, Tony Tapatio, Air Jesus
Tied for 3rd: Witness, Flying Finn, The Airtiste
2nd: The Shred
1st: Airistotle

It was a Jane's Addiction song with some tantalizing pauses and explosive starts, which gave a lot of opportunities for different routines to take advantage. Air Jesus did by crossing himself in the pause; Mom Jeans flung Capri Suns into the crowd and got the first 6.0 of the night. The judges were super into Tony Tapatio's routine, since he was pretty on top of the song itself - and was also on top of the crowd, going on a lubed-up shoulder ride over towards the judges' table. But nailing every single note was The Airtiste. He was practicing as the song played for the listening round, and nailed it then; then when his turn came, he had everything completely figured out. Somehow Ben Bowman thought he had fewer of the song's actual notes than Tony Tapatio did, and gave the Airtiste a criminal 5.6. I was pretty much all set with Bowman at this point. However, he was the only judge who gave Finn a reasonable score with a 5.8, whereas the other judges went for 5.5 and 5.6. The Shred made us all nervous with a knee-drop, but Airistotle had no reason to be nervous at all. Coming in on top and faced with a song that plays to his strengths (frenetic, hypermobile, hits made for moves), he still managed to impress the crowd with one specific move: 2005 National Champ Rockness Monster had custom-made a new backdrop for the stage, featuring the US Air Guitar logo in the middle, and Airistotle marched up to it in one of the pauses and took the guitar from the logo's hands. Chills. See his performance for yourself here. What did the judges do? The judges got all superdramatic and prepared to turn their whiteboards around all at once. Usually, this can only mean one thing. Straight... 5.9s? What? I mean, sure, as a score, that's excellent (especially considering the numbers these judges were throwing down), but who toys with the audience like that?

Airistotle Round 2Airistotle, Round 2. Photo by Glory Wholesome (Whitney Young)

You've probably done the math by now. Your 2015 US Air Guitar National Champion, for the third time and the second in a row, is Airistotle!! He's Finland-bound, along with a really strong Team USA of fellow competitors trying their luck. While he is a 3-time US champ, he hasn't won on the world stage yet, so this year may well be his year. I'll see you at the AGWC livestream on August 28th!

Tags: portland, recaps, nationals, 2015 season