The Toronto Open Air Guitar competition

For more than an hour before things got started at the El Mocambo, music heavy on guitar—like Pantera’s Respect and Weezer’s Hash Pipe—came through the speakers. Friends stood in groups and often someone would mime playing a guitar or bang his or her head to the music. These were mostly spectators, not competitors in the Toronto Open Air Guitar competition.

The event is the first of four air guitar competitions that will be held in Toronto in the coming months. The last one, happening sometime in the summer, will draw from regional winners across the country to determine a national champ. The champ will go on to represent Canada at the Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland, an event near and dear to my heart. Last night’s event got a little boost from Björn Türoque, the perpetual second greatest U.S. air guitarist.

Björn Türoque (Be-yorn Too-rock) was in town to promote Air Guitar Nation, a documentary about the rise of air guitar in the U.S., which opens March 23. Björn Türoque, née Dan Crane, had appeared on The Edge and Much on Demand, and would speak to the CBC crew covering last night’s event. For the Toronto Open competition, he would judge and demonstrate his air guitar skills.

Björn Türoque entered the bar wearing a thin bandanna amid a few “whoos” of recognition from the crowd. He headed towards the table near the stage where he and Barb Seaton from EMI and music writer Karen Bliss would hand out figure skating-style scores for 60-second performances to songs chosen by the competitors.

The first round, with eight air guitarist plus five late entries—some of whom were obviously waiting for the liquid courage to kick in—was far from Oulu’s standards. One stand-out was Glen-airy Glen Rock, who, after announcing that “my business is rock, and business is good!” made a fine performance to British Sea Power’s Apologies to Insect Life. The Quebec air guitar champion, Rad, had the lights dimmed before he came on stage looking like a cross between Dracula and a member of Star Trek’s Borg. His finger lights looked pretty cool as he worked an Ozzy Osborne song. The whole effect was totally satanic.

“You gotta have a look or a gimmick,” said Brad Pelman, co-president of Maple Pictures, the company bringing Air Guitar Nation to Canada. Pelman’s advice is true, but the shtick can backfire. Kaptain Kozmic, dressed as an astronaut complete with a confetti-spewing pack, found his fish-bowl helmet rotating and blocking his face with every bounce. Hurricane Andy, wearing a full nun’s habit, had to fight the head covering out from in front of his face. The generally generous Björn Türoque awarded Hurricane Andy a 4.666. Neither Kozmic nor Andy made it to the final round.

Unfortunately, only a few women competed. Also unfortunately, they all felt that unzipping and often removing a layer would make for good air guitar. Only 2Cute2Compete moved on in the competition.

After the intermission and a solid performance by Björn Türoque, the six competitors of the final round assembled on stage to hear the song they’d all have to perform to: Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name. With the start of the final round, the atmosphere in the crowd became pleasantly less frat housey as the competition on stage became more serious. Stephanie, who performed as Astro Girl in the first round, bet me that her favourite, the shirtless Schmidt Lad, would finish ahead of Glen-airy Glen Rock. She had faith in her competitor. After all, she had run her hand through his chest hair backstage.

Rad still looked super bad in the second round, but his gimmick didn’t work well with the new song. Dracula Borg had painted himself into a bit of a corner. Master Yoshi, a Grade 2 teacher who claimed to “rock out with his cock out” (though he kept his routine totally PG) did well, as did The PK, who definitely had the most, or at least loudest, fans in the crowd. In the end, I was a dollar richer as Glen-airy Glen Rock got the highest score and won the night to prostrate “we’re not worthy” bows from The PK and Master Yoshi.

The Toronto contest didn’t compare with the inaugural Canadian air guitar event in Whistler last December, where 500 people attended and at least 100 were turned away. Roughly 80 people came out to the Toronto event.

“It wasn’t amazing, but it was a good regional,” said Björn Türoque at the end of the night. If Toronto wants to send one of its own to Oulu, or even crown a national champ, it’s got a lot of work to do.

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