Conor Taft shuffled onto stage looking for all the world like a quiet kid who turns in his math homework on time and talks to crushes without making eye contact.
But during a minute of music, he broke the illusion. He bobbed, dipped, spun, leaped and ripped off his neat blue vest, sending buttons flying. All the while, his fingers flew up and down the neck of an imaginary guitar.
When his time was up, the judges gave him high marks. The crowd chanted: “Rockward! Rockward!”
Taft, of Lawrence, performs under the name “Rockward Silence” and won first place Saturday night among 20 air guitar competitors in extravagant costumes who let pantomime rocking do the talking in US Air Guitar’s Kansas City area semifinal at Kanza Hall in Overland Park. The air guitarists who jammed without instruments were judged by a panel of five that included Isaiah Radke of the punk band Radkey, from St. Joseph, and Matt Pryor of Kansas City’s The Get Up Kids.
As the first-place winner, Taft gets a free trip to the national finals on Aug. 6 in Austin, Texas, joined by two others who made the cut Saturday night. A few weeks later, the best silent shredders from across the globe will congregate in Finland to compete in the world championships to test their metal mettle for air guitar’s top medal. The national US Air Guitar association organizes local and regional competitions across the country.
Taft said he was “thrilled” to go to Austin. He only started competing after his boss told him to, and he doesn’t really practice before going on stage, he said.
“I love music, and I’m really energetic,” Taft said, adding that air guitar allows him to “let out my crazy.”
‘Pork Sword is king’
Performances last sixty seconds, and they're judged on three criteria: technical skill, stage presence, and "airness."
What is “airness” exactly?
"You know it when you see it," said Nielsen Nacis, whose stage name is "Thunderball." For his performance, Nacis chose a section of Southgang's "Fire In Your Body" to rock out to.
Each contestant brought a different character, song choice and style to the stage.
As “Air Jesus,” defending Kansas City champion JoJo Longbttom climbed up into the second round on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” He was followed by Brian Reeves as “Air Judas,” who sprinkled pieces of pretend silver coins on the ground before his rendition of Slayer’s “God Hates Us All.” Neither advanced to Austin.
Then there was Travis Arey (“Eddie Hans Flailin’”), who sported mutton chops and jorts while ripping off a face-melting performance that got him to the final round. He finished second overall.
Taft and Arey will be joined in Austin by Cameron “Pork Sword” Hawk, who draw acclaim on account of his energetic antics, technical skill and plastic pig mask.
“Pork Sword is king, man, and that’s a fact,” Radke said.
Elizabeth Melin, currently ranked 9th in the world and performing as “CindAIRella, had to adapt after recently breaking her foot. She made her knee scooter part of her act, much to the audience’s delight, and she was among the seven who advanced to the playoff Saturday night.
More family than competitors
In the first round, each player was able to chose their own tune, which meant ample opportunity for practice. But in the second round, the judges surprised them with a challenge: a minute-long mix of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.”
The finalists had to make up their act on the spot.
Taft went fifth, and he took his time, painstakingly folding his vest before handing it to an audience member. Then, he transformed, going from choir boy to wild man. The crowd and the critics loved it.
The air guitarists resembled a family more than competitors. Taft was met by a line of hugs after his winning performance, and Longbottom tore off his “Air Jesus” shirt to reveal a rainbow painted on his chest.
The audience didn’t just give their applause to the elite performers. Steven Fuller chose the name “65 Roses.” and though he didn’t move on, the crowd still clapped after Fuller explained that his moniker was meant to honor his son, who has been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
“He is always fighting for air, and this is air guitar,” Fuller said.
After the announcement of the winners, the competitors were joined by the audience and the judges for a rendition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” There were dozens of extended air solos, and some bowed to Taft, who was held aloft as his fingers found invisible frets.
Before and after the performance, emcee Eric “Mean” Melin — the 2013 air guitar world champion — acknowledged that the last week has been “pretty crappy.”
The U.S. was sent reeling by the shootings of two black men by white police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota and the killing of five police officers in Dallas.
“I don’t want to talk about gun control. I don’t want to talk about racism,” Melin said.
But he added that he had brought an idea back from Finland.
“If you’re holding an air guitar, you can’t hold a gun.”
To check the progress of the competition, visit usairguitar.com.