- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

The air guitar — however ridiculous it may seem — is a mighty miraculous tool. Stop laughing for a second and consider this: It’s not only free, weightless and perpetually available, but capable of transforming its user from music fan to rock god with just one mimicked chord.

This amazing, invisible instrument is experiencing a major renaissance right now as people are beginning to discover its payoffs: fun, increased physical fitness, and — thanks to the hard-working organization U.S. Air Guitar — maybe even some good, old-fashioned rock-star-esque fame and fortune.

The current revival of air guitar in America dates back to 2001. That’s when a Wall Street Journal article about the Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland, and its 2,500 spectators caught the eye of a New Yorker named Kriston Rucker.

Startled to learn that no American had ever taken the title since its inception in 1996, Mr. Rucker decided he had but one choice: to embark on a reconnaissance mission to Scandinavia with a partner, Cedric Devitt.

When the duo returned to the states (Mr. Devitt freshly recognized as the world’s fourth best pseudo-strummer), they vowed to find and support the next great American air guitarist in a quest to restore glory to this great nation: the land of “Cherry Pie” and home of “Paradise City.”

Thus was U.S. Air Guitar born.

Its first national contest in 2003 yielded a flurry of press coverage (from CNN to Howard Stern) and a new world champion in “C-Diddy” (David Jung). He was a bold actor from Brooklyn who wore a red satin robe and a Hello Kitty breastplate all the way to Finland — where he maxed out in all the judging categories: technique (essentially tempo), charisma, stage presence, and the elusive “airness” (how much you “get” air guitar).

News of his American victory sent ripples of pride and hope out into the burgeoning U.S. air guitar scene, which has quietly thrived since then.

Last year, the movement got a massive boost courtesy of Alexandra Lipsitz’s “Air Guitar Nation” (out on DVD Aug. 28), a small but snappy documentary about U.S. Air Guitar’s history that began winning over critics and audiences on the festival circuit.

The laugh-out-loud flick has served as a publicity machine since then, turning its stars into semi-celebrities — particularly the literal poster child and runner-up “Bjorn Turoque” (Dan Crane) — and their cause into a significant cultural event.

This year’s championship, slated for New York in August, will be the biggest yet, culling its elite contenders from semifinal contests in clubs in 14 cities — including Washington’s 9:30 Club on Wednesday — before crowning 2007’s “Air-ic” Clapton.

Washingtonians may be particularly intrigued to know that one of their own is not only a veteran competitor, but is proving to be an early favorite. That man is Severna Park, Md.’s own Lance “the Shred” Kasten, who appears briefly in “Air Guitar Nation.”

He’s a 45-year-old father of three who runs a contracting business out of his well-tended suburban home — which doesn’t sound all that intimidating until you hear his history and watch him practice.

Be afraid, fellow contestants; be very afraid.

In the 1980s, the Shred swept Ocean City-area contests, winning loot like a Gibson Les Paul (that’s a real fancy guitar, folks) and enough cash to furnish his beach apartment. Over the years, he’s maintained a steady training regimen, which typically involves 30 minutes a day of thrashing around to Rush or Metallica in what he calls his “Dude Room.” There, he has ample space to perform “windmills” with his “pick-holding” hand, leap across the carpet and jump nimbly off his pool table.

“It gets the adrenaline going; it’s like having a pot of coffee a day,” he says.

Through his “caffeinated” daily routine, he’s developed the endurance to bring his talents to all but one of the U.S. Air Guitar Championship semifinals, and has often ranked.

“I don’t want to be cocky,” he says, “but there’s a pretty good chance that I could take it [this year].”

Bjorn, who’ll be emceeing this year’s rock-off tour, believes that the Shred may indeed steal the D.C. title, at the very least. “He’s one of my favorites,” he says of our hometown hopeful. “He’s in great shape.”

Air guitar “sounds like a joke,” Mr. Rucker explains in the film. “But when you start to tell it 10,000 times, you start to forget that it’s a joke.”

Bjorn is hesitant to use the word “joke” with regard to his art, as it’s truly changed his life; this seemingly silly activity helped him find the strength to leave his desk job and embrace creative pursuits like writing and playing in a real-life band.

He agrees that invisible instrumentation is “fun and really funny,” but says he’s found a much more profound side to the whole ordeal.

“I get massive e-mails from people saying that I inspired them or that they loved the movie and it made them laugh,” he says, “and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking that seriously. Air guitar is a way to take yourself not-seriously for a matter of minutes or hours. And in a way, there’s something about taking yourself not-seriously that’s really serious.”

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