WASHINGTON -- The 9:30 Club looked much as it does for most other shows on Saturday night -- crowded with excited fans pumping their fists and cheering wildly for outlandishly costumed performers. However, even to the the untrained eye, there was one reasonably significant difference: Although music was blaring, there was not an instrument to be seen.
The decided dearth of drum set, bass or the legendary Fenders and Gibsons of conventional rockers was due to the fact that this was the D.C. finals of the U.S. Air Guitar Championship, and all instruments were imaginary. But don't try to tell the dozen-odd competitors who sweated, thrashed and lip-synched their hearts out on the stage that it was just a silly game.
There was plenty of passionate head-banging, stage-diving, knocking over of microphones and other acrobatics. One young man even slipped the emcee a list of his emergency contacts before his set, just in case. The contestants were serious, as were the fans -- some of whom came decked out in matching outfits to support their favorite pseudo-guitarists -- and the judges.
The judges' panel included the last American to win the world championship, Hot Lixx Houlihan, and -- somewhat more surprisingly -- the Supreme Court correspondant for The New York Times, Adam Liptak. (It turns out that the journalist has written about air guitar as a cultural phenomenon). The judges held up cards with scores and praised or denounced performances from on high, their seats perched above the stage.
With names like Shreddy Boop, Doug the Thunderstruck and Vlad DM Wailer, sporting knee pads, sunglasses and wigs of various hues and degrees of poofiness, the motley assortment of air guitarists battled it out for a spot in the evening's second round, which narrowed the competition down to only the highest-scoring contenders. The ultimate winner, Tommy Fretless -- known in the real world as Adam Lee -- grabbed his second regional title in a row and will move on to the national finals in Denver, where he will compete for a spot in the World AIr Guitar Champtionships -- yes, this is a real thing -- in Finland.
When the competition had ended, all the guitarists returned to the stage, where they were joined by most of the audience in a riotous singalong to that classic air guitar jam, "Free Bird." As costumed performers and ordinary fans alike crowded together and wailed as one "And this bird you cannot change..." the love for all things wonderfully, unabashedly nerdy was palpable. Even after the song was over and club staff attempted to herd people toward the exits, the revelry continued as people lingered for just a few minutes longer in this fantasy world, where having the guts to get up in front of people and embrace your weirdness was cause for celebration.
After all, in the words of emcee and air guitar legend Bjorn Turoque, "It's not easy to pretend to do something and make people cheer for it."