- The Washington Times - Friday, May 29, 2009

“I’m writing almost every day at the moment,” Katie Melua muses during a recent stop in Chicago.

“I was in San Francisco the other day, and I saw this person in a wheelchair who looked like Father Christmas. I decided that I had to include that lyric in a song — something about Father Christmas in a wheelchair.”

The songwriter, 24, laughs before conceding, “Maybe that would be too strange.”

Although most Americans remain unacquainted with Miss Melua’s music, she is a veritable titan in the United Kingdom, where her first two albums sold more than 3 million copies combined. Such popularity made her the region’s highest-selling female artist from 2004 through 2006 — a feat accomplished without the assistance of a major label.

“I’m signed to an independent record company named Dramatico,” Miss Melua explains. “Up until a year ago, I was the only artist on the roster, and they gave me a lot of attention. It’s been wonderful.”

Propelled by her esteem in Europe, Miss Melua is focusing her attention on America, where her third album, “Pictures,” was released recently in conjunction with Universal Records. The recording mixes coffeehouse ambience with intimate, neo-jazz arrangements, a combination inspired partially by Miss Melua’s fascination with the late Washington-born singing sensation Eva Cassidy.

“She did not waste a single note that came out of her mouth,” Miss Melua says of the acclaimed vocalist, who frequented local venues before succumbing to skin cancer at age 33 in 1996. “Everything had the most potent and subtle emotion to it. I think that’s what makes her the greatest singer of my generation.”

Miss Melua’s American shows channel a similar brand of subtlety; she’s touring the country alone.

“It’s totally solo,” she says of the tour. “For the first time ever, I am completely on my own. I have two guitars and a piano, and I have found that I’m really loving it. These venues are a lot smaller, so it just made sense not to bring my band over. I wanted to do this on my own.”

Although her albums often feature percussion, backing vocals and electric instruments, Miss Melua says her material works quite well in an acoustic context. “The production is just the outer layer, so sometimes it’s nice to strip that back. That’s how you know whether a song is good or not — when it can survive without such protection.”

Katie Melua will visit the Birchmere on Sunday night. The show opens with a 7:30 performance by fellow songwriter David Berkeley. Tickets are $29.50.

Air apparent

The US Air Guitar Championships launched in 2003 with animated competitions in New York City and Los Angeles. Since then, the event has expanded throughout the country to encompass more than 20 regional competitions and one sold-out finals round.

Centreville native Tim Granlund joined the championships in 2006. Clad in leather pants, aviator sunglasses and a modified Army jacket, the University of Virginia graduate transformed himself into the Six-String General, a larger-than-life officer with an affinity for 1980s rock ‘n’ roll.

“It was much bigger than I expected,” Mr. Granlund says of his inaugural performance, which took place at the 9:30 Club. “There was a bit of nervous energy right before my first song started. I didn’t know if people were going to like it.”

As the opening strains of the Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” emanated from the speaker system, an audience member shouted his approval by exclaiming, “Oh yes, dude, I love this song!”

“This humungous smile broke out across my face,” Mr. Granlund recalls, “and I knew I was ready. I knew people were going to love it.”

Believe it or not, air-guitar competition is an immensely popular summer event, supported by legions of fans with a mixture of ironic reverence and genuine excitement. Performances are judged on a scale from 4.0 to 6.0 — the same point system used in figure skating — and air-guitarists are evaluated on their technical prowess, stage presence and “airness.”

The yearly events are competitive, of course, with the American champion gaining admittance to the world championships in Oulu, Finland. Even so, the Six-String General claims his fellow guitarists prefer peace, not war.

“This is air guitar,” Mr. Granlund says with a laugh. “The whole thing is a very tongue-in-cheek affair. But as the years go by, it becomes less and less about the competition and more about getting together, jamming and hanging out. One of the most common refrains you hear is, ‘I don’t even care if I win; I just want to see everybody and party.’”

Mr. Granlund, who plans on “doing this thing until I’m 60,” recently pulled up stakes and relocated to Los Angeles. Still, he’ll return to the area this evening for the annual D.C. installment of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships.

“I would love to win,” he says, “and I’m going to try to win. I’ll keep doing the championships regardless, though. It all goes back to having fun, hearing good music and spending time with friends.”

The U.S. Air Guitar Championships will be held tonight at the 9:30 Club. Tickets are $15, with doors opening at 8 p.m.

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