“You either love this, or you hate it,” said Taylor Fullbright, a.k.a Brock McRock, not just the event’s emcee, but also a regular competitor who has twice advanced to the event’s national championship. Why anyone would hate something as innocuous as an air-guitar competition still escapes me, but even moreso after what I witnessed at last week’s event. Held upstairs at AvantGarden – a room renowned for the strangest of artistic rites – the contest drew a small but fierce field of competitors, all vying for the chance to represent the state in the next round of faux finger-tapping in Chicago.
Those who arrived early enough were welcomed by “Crazy Train” and “Baba O’Reilly” blaring from the open windows of Avant’s upper deck. Anyone who stayed ‘til the end was treated to a raucous show-closing rendition of “Free Bird,” as air-performed by all the event’s participants and anyone else who cared to cast aside their reservations and just rock out. On arrival, we scanned the room for obvious contestants and spotted Addie, whose gregarious nature outed her instantly. She withheld her last name but later proudly took the stage as “Crooked Pussy.” She told us she was a returning contestant and she was one of four women who would compete this night.
“You can expect a good time. It’s a party. Everyone’s gonna have fun,” she correctly predicted. She said she plays guitar – as in the actual, tangible instrument — but “I play air guitar way better.”
Randy Garza, a.k.a. “El Airiachi,” good-naturedly told us he’d been competing since 2008 and advanced to the Midwest finals in Chicago last year.
“Chicago really gets air guitar, they really embrace it," he said. "We played a historical theater called the Metro. People have played there, huge names, and there we are, all on stage and the crowd was packed. It was such a wonderful feeling to have all those people there to see you where they’ve had all these big names.”
It would seem Houston still has some catching up to do. This year’s field was only seven deep, and each paid $10 to compete. That’s right, Houston, you had a one-in-seven chance to win a free trip to Chicago for just ten bucks and missed out.
Worse, you missed out on a lot of fun. The event organizers selected a trio of professional comics as judges, which was a great call. Bob Biggerstaff, KiKi Maroon and Andrew Youngblood are all Houstonians and are all damn funny. Their quips added some polished fun to a night where faked skills commanded the spotlight. Biggerstaff wryly told one competitor, whose playing hand hovered around his short-shorts, “You play a mean sac,” and later asked a fully-suited Airiachi, “At which taqueria do you work?”
When contestant “Heiress of Rock” set aside the stage gear she’d planned to use and just improvised her way through her song, Youngblood observed, “She’s kinda like Carrot Top. She had a lot of props but she didn’t really use any of them to be funny.” Maroon commended one competitor’s perseverance: “I love when your wig flew off,” Maroon said. “You didn’t give a fuck, you were just like, ‘There goes my weave!’”
Before long, the comics were playing straight man for a crowd riled up on $2 Lone Stars. Biggerstaff said he felt “a little gay” for knowing one performer’s song was “Rent,” from the musical of the same name, then asked her how drunk she was at that moment. To which a crowd member shouted, “Drunk enough to pay the rent!” And so it went. The competition was split into a pair of rounds. In the first, contestants performed to songs they’d hand-picked. Performer Cherry Poppins kicked things off with Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” but there were less obvious selections, like El Airiachi’s choice of guitar virtuoso Gary Moore's “White Knuckles." Youngblood told Crooked Pussy she “brought the fire” during her rendition of “Icky Thump,” but also deducted points for her over-the-top energy.
“It’s called ‘air guitar,’ not ‘air dance,’” he noted.
Youngblood was also at the center of a scoring controversy that caused UH communications student Laura Longoria, competing as Lo Long, to miss the second round. When she finished her wildly fun version of Green Day’s “Jaded,” Longoria inexplicably ran from the stage towards the stairwell. Youngblood mistakenly believed she’d rushed off the stage to vomit. When she told him she hadn’t, he deducted a half-point.
The performances were separated by Brock McRock’s color commentary, the judges’ official scoring and periodic “Lone Star salutes,” a nod to the event sponsor that was really nothing more than the crowd holding up its cans of the “National Beer of Texas” while singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” Young, handsome and energetic “Shredlocks” advanced and inspired no fewer than four jokes about him getting preferential scoring from the lone female judge. In the end, he and Crooked Pussy tied for third place, El Airiachi was runner-up and dark horse El Mago earned the title and a trip to Chicago.
I asked El Mago — whose name is Pascual Figueroa — how long he’d been preparing for this moment of glory. His response? Two days.
“My friend, who is a seasoned veteran, called me a couple of days ago and he said, ‘You have to do this’ and I said, ‘Alright.’”
Two days of coaching and El Mago worked his hairy-chested magic on the judges to a Scorpions song. He said he’s been to Chicago once before, but is eager to get back in July for his debut as Houston’s “air” apparent to air-guitar royalty. If he does well there, he’ll advance to the national event in Portland, Ore. for a chance to travel to Finland for the world championship event against air guitarists from more than two dozen countries.
“I’m gonna practice my craft and I’m gonna go to Chicago and bring it!” he promised.