Flying Vs and fake cocaine at the U.S. Air Guitar Championships

For a certain type of rock show, it's most vital that a guitarist bring to the stage the one thing no road tech can tune: a boss facial expression. You know the one I'm talking about — the mouth tightened into that about-to-sneeze/about-to-come/definitely-gonna-rock-you/all-important Oooh yeah "o"; the eyes glazed in Song Remains the Same-level fantasy abandon; the neck bulging, veins working overtime to pump blood to fingers furiously stroking the neck of the instrument. This face is especially essential when said instrument is invisible. When your gear is as real as that dream of opening for Aerosmith, you've gotta kick that deadpan shoe-gazing shit to the curb and rock the histrionics like a motherfucker. And that's just what happened when the U.S. Air Guitar Championships came to San Francisco this month.

On Thursday, May 11, an assembled cast of 21 air ax slingers gathered at the Independent in hopes of grasping that brass ring of overactive imaginations — a trip to New York to battle at the U.S. air nationals in June, and, from there, to compete for world domination in Finland on Sept. 8. And lemme tell you, the contestants were a motley crew. From the Kid Rock-costumed roadie doing "air lines" backstage (and chiding the organizers for not having enough booze — but hey, there was plenty of air Makers for everyone) to the dude who had every color bandana tied to his hot pants, from the Patrick Swayze-as-ABBA guy to the kid barely old enough to rock a cocktail, everyone had a guitar hero — most of whom emerged from the canon of cock rock.

I was one of the lucky sonsabitches who got to judge the event (along with the music editor of the Onion, the editor of Fecalface.com, and Zach Rogue from Rogue Wave). That honor entailed getting plied with booze and coming up with numerical assessments of skill level (harder than it looks; I went to school at UC Santa Cruz, where we didn't grade things). With the choice seats in the house, we judges marveled at the beanpole punk in the jock strap (so much of an anarchist he kinda stopped pantomiming his song toward the end). We chided the air guitar elder for subjecting the sold-out house to Joe Satriani (never a good idea). We appreciated the intellectual nature of classical air guitar (although in an arena such as this, you really need to think with your crotch). We flipped off the crowd, who, in turn, gave us the finger back. And we wished there were more females in the mix (a scant two, one of whom did backbends to Bon Jovi and tore her skimpy tank top off). But in the end, it came down to the heavies. Would the hair metal revivalist, in all his Poison-ed glory, represent our great city? Or would it be the thrash angst of a denim-clad hesher with a wig of Slash's weave? After one round of 60-second "original" music (i.e., chosen by the contestants), those who made the cut were thrown a curveball — they had to tune their shred to "California Über Alles." At that point, Hot Lixx Hulahan rose like Cream to the top, having already wowed us in his black sombrero by segueing from some Spanish guitar thing into real hard rock. With the scores tallied, Hulahan was officially congratulated by Air Guitar emcee (and perennial second-place winner) Björn Türoque, and the losers, the judges, and the hangers-on stumbled down to the Page bar. There we basked in the beery glow of one irrefutably fun evening — that is, until one reveler became a little too overjoyed, literally spilling his guts on the nearby carpet. And that pink vomit, my friends, was definitely not made of air.

Show picks (involving actual guitars): Sixties girl-group sugar and arsenic get equal pours in the swoon-worthy Tough and Lovely from Columbus, Ohio. Frontwoman Lara Yazvac is all fists and kisses, howling just a smidge when the loving is over and warning that her heart's still tender when it's time to start anew. The jangling garage melodies are bubblegum sweet, and "Hard to Love Me" is one of the most passionate love-in-stitches songs I heard last year. Catch the Tough and Lovely crafting simple modern pop perfection (from the fabric of the Shangri-Las' tear-stained hankies) on Thursday, May 25, at the Hemlock Tavern at 9:30 p.m. That same night, Low Red Land performs at an AIDS benefit at Hotel Utah at 8 p.m. The new Boston transplants hit that earthy sweet spot between early '90s college rock and melancholy alt-country.

 
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