Tuscon offers up air guitar and gyros at the food court!

This post is from US Air Guitar National Finalist Vlad DM Wailer (Kolb Ettenger), who judged the 2013 Tuscon US Air Guitar Qualifier. guest-blog-series


Arizona is different. I’ve lived in Tucson for a couple of years now and Arizona continues to confound even my broader sense of understanding. The past few summers I’ve traveled to get my air guitar fix. I’ve driven 12 hours to compete in Texas. I’ve flown back east and did the NYC/Philly/DC corridor. I made it the finals one year way the hell over in Chicago. This summer it was time to rock the desert itself.


The idea was not my own, I must admit. In fact, the air guitar competition was a beast in its own right. Sponsored by the SAACA (Southern Arizona Arts & Cultural Alliance) as part of a guitar festival, air guitar slotted in right between some craft-made guitars and guitar equipment, which happened to be between a gyro stand and a pretzel shop right in the middle of a Tucson Mall at 2:00 in the afternoon.


food court


You can see the gyro station behind the stage.


If the venue and time slot weren’t enough to convince you of this show’s strangeness, let’s go further down the rabbit hole:


No one brought a song. That’s right. No one. Most of the competitors were dark horse entries who didn’t even have a song to bring. Fully prepared was Jonas, a SAACA vet who was ATC for this show, a man whose voice is so powerful it can only belong to someone who has worked for radio, a man whose long curly locks would have made for an excellent air guitarist. But alas! Jonas needed to be the man behind the machine, and accordingly edited some 25 songs beforehand so that the competitors could have their pick when they took the stage.


There was an opening act and a halftime show of actual musicians. Before the air guitarists had their way with the stage, Phoenix and Dragon, a symphonic power metal band, played a set. As this was part of a guitar festival, air guitar shared the same food court stage with other musicians throughout the afternoon. And indeed, between rounds one and two John Bujak did a set showing of some sweet riffs during his own performance. Let’s not forget -- this was at all in a food court.


And lastly, the first round was virtually devoid of stage names. Competitors such as George (pictured) and Chris rocked the stage to the best of their abilities. And while this at first robbed the show of feeling “US Air Guitar,” slowly the blocks fell into place. As the show went on, you could actually see the people beginning to understand. People stopped drinking their Orange Julii (this is the appropriate plural of Orange Julius—trust me) and began to watch airness unfold before them. You could see the competitors have that moment of clarity. They watched and you could see them thinking “If that’s what the last guy did, I need to be better. I need to up the ante.” By the end of the show Tucson didn’t feel different at all, and really all 9 ½ competitors had a rocking good time.




George rocks . . . for America. A sign of what Tucson had in store.


But first let’s study the crescendo. Did I mention that minors were competing in this? While the show started off with back-to-back kids (actually kids, not Airistotle-type kids) who were making textbook rookie mistakes, standing still, playing the same chord, and overall rigidity, I also wouldn’t put it past them to be hiding some Peter “Stiff” Dickens postmodern AIRtistic statement on materialism causing nihilism in consumer cultures. Occam’s Razor tells me they were just rookies. But the base has to start somewhere and it’s tough going first, and second, and third.


The judges were getting warmed up too. The panel was a triple threat of Vlad DM Wailer( that’s me), the yelp.com Tucson overlord Bella, and a local radio personality who went by The Mullet (I think his actual name was Tony). At one point there was even a doubles tandem of Sebastian and Sullivan whose technical merit was lacking, but rocked some splits and genuinely looked like they were having a good time. The competition was swelling with potential once everyone realized that air guitar was freaking fun.




The Mullet -- not just a clever name.


About four competitors in, we met George, who started the competition for real. I mean for real. Wild energy. Crazy moves. He was loose, in a good way, and the crowd was feeling his classic song choice of "Enter Sandman." He even dropped the shirt. The crowd went wild. The judges swooned. It was glorious until I got the word from someone in SAACA that the topless dude was a no-go. And I had to tank that poor lad. I’m so sorry George. The Man made me do it. Apparently it was in the rules or something. “Family atmosphere” and all that. Reasons aside, I swallowed the bitter pill, and lowballed George down in to the 4.0 range and denied him the competitive edge he deserved. Shirtlessness aside, the competitors saw the bar, knew where they needed to shoot.


A performer named Chris nailed every note of his solo in "You Shook Me All Night Long." What George had lacked in technical merit, Chris exemplified, but unfortunately, for me anyway, he lacked that crazy goodness of airness. Much as you can’t let little things like “facts” get in the way of a good story, you can let things like “technical merit” get in the way of good air guitar. Air guitar at its best is based on technicality, but is not enslaved to it. But still, we were getting better every competitor.




Chris channels his inner The Shred


First George, then Chris. It was thus a surprise that the next competitor was Count Rockula, who nailed "Purple Haze" to the wall. He had the notes. He had the moves. Well, he had some of the moves. He had an attempted split in jeans which he aborted about 33% in when he realized he forgot to warm up with some Pilates. The air-conditioned comfort of the food court did not have the loosening up effect of a sweaty night club, or a vintage red Adidas track suit. Either way the crowd was into it. The judges were into to it.




Count Rockula -- part of this balanced air guitar show.


But we weren’t into Count Rockula as much as we were into the next competitor, G-Man. G-Man was Justin Timberlake on 2006’s FutureSex/LoveSounds. He brought sexy back. It was gone, and G-Man brought it back. I don’t remember what song he played, but really does it matter? All the judges had to have a post-G-Man cigarette.


Round 2 went even further. The competitors who advanced knew what was up. G-Man had a target on his back. And it happened. Everyone got loose. The second was, top to bottom, better than the first. Everyone nailed their song, which in a format change, was different for each competitor, they didn’t hear the edit beforehand so they had to improv it as they went along, and were all recognizable mainstays of rock music. People adapted to the criticisms of the first round. Competitors adopted stage names. Chris became Jahbone (and placed second), Sebastian and Sullivan became Bash and Sully. The stops were removed, the stage was electric, but there was one man who was the clear best.




No caption necessary. G-Man really was a charmer.


G-Man all the way. I’ve been to a number of air guitar shows, mostly as a competitor, rarely as a spectator. I’ve been to local unaffiliated ones, and the mammoth NYC and Washington DC shows. I’ve also been to Pittsburgh in 2008 (Tommy Fretless remembers this one I’m sure) and Columbus, OH in 2007, both quirky in their vibe because it wasn’t quite clear if the audience was into it or not. So I know what it’s like to compete in strange circumstances. But this one was a weird one. "Free Bird" was even joined in on by some sweet mariachi bros.




Tucson didn’t know what hit it. I get the feeling that this is the beginning of some sweet air guitar in the desert. Maybe next time Tucson will be able to handle some shirtlessness. And we can dream that maybe Tuscon will  even crave it.

(Pictures courtesy of SAACA)

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