No notes were played by the artists on stage, but the message was loud and clear anyway: air guitar in St. Louis was here to stay.
As noted in our cover story last week, the Firebird hosted St. Louis' first-ever official qualifying event for U.S. Air Guitar on Friday, June 28. With paid travel and ascension through semi-final, national and world competition at stake, contestants already had plenty to prove. But the big question was this: would St. Louis provide enough "airness" to make it a yearly event?
"You guys saw a great competition tonight," says Eric Melin, host of the evening's event and a U.S. Air Guitar Hall of Famer who performs as "Mean Melin." "And I think St. Louis will get even better in the future."
About fifteen people played invisible axes at the Firebird, with several hailing from outside of St. Louis. While a few circuit veterans were present and locked-in, it was the newbies who impressed Melin.
"You had two last-minute contestants move on to the second round. Once they understood what was happening and what the judges were looking for, they let it fly," Melin says.
Judges included Robert McClimans, talent buyer for the Firebird, Julie Dill, writer for I Went to a Show, and Bryan Sutter, professional concert photographer. Before the competition, Sutter wasn't sure what the night would bring. "I'm expecting car crashes, bongos and shadenfreud," says Sutter, who was sporting a silky snakeskin jacket for the occasion.
Knowing that St. Louis was a virgin air guitar city, Melin opened the show with an example of how to rock out, violently playing air drums, air keys and windmilling an air guitar to a track he had composed. "Are you pumped up for the biggest, stupidest rock show of your lives?" he asked the audience.
Melin then explained the rules: Contestants would perform to a one-minute edit song, either previously prepared or, for last-minute entrants, chosen from about 30 edits provided by U.S. Air Guitar. The top five would continue to round two, where competitors would blindly choose songs from the "Trucker Hat of Doom" or perform a previous selection from that round. Judges award scores of 4.0-6.0 for each performance, and the highest total wins the night.
"We're looking for 'airness,' Melin says. "You can't describe it, but you'll know it when you see it. You'll get a tingle in your fucking twat."
Competition kicked off with "Ergoff the Destroyer," a teenage walk-up contestant in a Hawaiian lei and cat makeup who impressed the judges by covering the stage to Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love." Another last-minute competitor, "Petey Poppa," went conceptual with his song by Pantera, graphically birthing a guitar by spreading his legs and strumming what came out.
"Childbirth is hard. When your feet went up in the 'stirrups,' I really felt it," Dill says.
"It took a lot of balls to make that happen," McClimans agrees.
"J.B. the Master" was caught with his pants down -- almost literally. After walking out of the restroom, friends convinced him to be a last-minute addition to the show while Melin was calling for volunteers. "J.B." hurriedly chose a Bon Jovi/Guns & Roses medley from Melin's list and made sweet love to his... well...
"I liked your humping of the air," says McClimans. "You walk straight out of the shitter and onto the stage."
"Crystal Richter," a veteran from Kansas City, was up next. With her eye-framing black makeup, plenty of high kicks and hair that wouldn't stop moving, she stunned the judges with her expertise during "Hot for Teacher."
"That hair was bitchin'," says Dill. "So much airness."
Judges also appreciated the airness of "Pork Sword," a guy in tiny teal shorts, a red hooded robe and a realistic pig mask. "Pork Sword" flailed around with his invisible guitar, finally falling to the ground in a stare-off with his mask and in danger of his shorts showing something a bit more solid than air.
"Uh, thanks for not exposing yourself to us. Man, that pig creeped me out," Sutter says.
"That's a fucking weird-ass mask," McClimans agrees.
With eight people moving on to round two, the judges would witness even more unexpected performances. "Son of Angus," decked out in shorts and high socks as his AC/DC namesake would have appreciated, took on "Rock You Like a Hurricane" by the Scorpions. Things didn't end well, though, when he tripped over a chair and forgot to strum.
"You're really good at walking, but I could have used more fingering from you," Dill says.
"I'm just thankful you didn't impale yourself," McClimans says.
"Petey Poppa" returned to the stage with Metallica's "Master of Puppets," taking the title literally by jiggling his hands up and down with invisible marionette strings. That didn't go over well with the judges, though.
"What the fuck were you doing with your hands? I didn't know what the fuck was going on," McClimans exclaims.
"The Dapper Dwarf," a KC resident who barely missed qualifying for the semi-finals during his last event, threw himself into Journey's "Any Way You Want It," windmilling, sliding across the stage and staring down the judges.
"I dig it," Sutter says. "You've got passion, movement and a really creepy eyes."
But it's not air guitar until all hell breaks loose. "Peter Stiffdickens" chose Jet's "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" from the Trucker Hat of Doom. Seemingly giving up on a song he didn't know, he plopped down into a chair with a couple of beers, passing the time by waving. He gradually scooted his chair closer to the edge of the stage before smashing his beer cans together, spraying sticky liquid all over the place, jumping onto the floor, and dragging this reporter in circles on her back.
"For 30 seconds, he wasn't even playing air guitar," Dill says. "And the Allison abuse... I was just disappointed.
The end of round two brought no clear winner, as "Crystal Richter" and "Pork Sword" were dead even. Thus, Melin excitedly explained the need for an "air off," a third round in which the two contestants would perform "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" by The Darkness. "It's a big deal," Melin says. "I've never seen an air off in a qualifying round before. It's very dramatic!"
"Pork Sword" won over the judges with his reverence for his pig mask ("Your pig love is awesome," McClimans says.), but in the end, "Crystal Richter" scored quite a bit better with her hair whips and Gene Simmons tongue.
"That was the best tongue action we've seen all night," Dill marvels. Watch "Crystal Richter" kick "Pork Sword's" butt in Jason Rosenbaum's video.
"St. Louis is a virgin city for air guitar, and I love the idea of spreading the act to a new city," says "Crystal Richter," known as Beth Olson in her regular life. "Going to Washington, D.C. for the semi-finals will be amazing."
With the winner crowned, Melin invited contestants, judges and audience members onto the stage for a "Freebird" jam. "I don't even like that song," Melin says, "But 'Freebird' is universal."
McClimans already is looking forward to next year's competition. "That was just awesome. We're definitely going to do it again."