Competitors with names like “Ketchup,” “Karen the Wayward Sunflower” and “Papa Dom the Beard” shredded invisible guitars as part of the final Third Thursday event of the year in Manhattan.
Crowds on both sides of Poyntz Avenue watched contestants perform in an air guitar challenge on a stage consisting of a large gooseneck trailer in front of Manhattan Brewing Company Thursday evening. An air guitar challenge is as simple as it sounds — people pretend to play a guitar in tune with rock songs for an audience.
The man who organized the event in Manhattan, Justin Howard, goes by the stage name “Nordic Thunder” and is the 2021 Air Guitar World Champion. Howard said competitive air guitar performances are “a promotion of world peace.”
“It brings people together,” Howard said. “It allows us to have fun and be ourselves, and invite the community to do so.”
Howard, who performs in a leather loincloth-inspired outfit, was invited to Manhattan by Jeff Sackrider, member of the Incite MHK local art group, along with other artists and muralists who are bringing more public art to the city. New murals can be spotted in Aggieville, downtown Manhattan along “mural alley” and at 1600 Poyntz Ave. Painting on the new murals will conclude Monday. The artists include Denise Duong, Joseph Renada Jr., Sick Fisher (who previously painted “Kitty Castle” in the downtown alley) and Kate Lewis.
Ten people participated in the air guitar challenge, including “Quacky,” the mascot for the Little Apple Duck Dash that supports Boys and Girls Club of Manhattan. Competitors riffed on their imaginary instruments along with rock songs from bands like Metallica, Pantera and Kansas. The first round whittled the field of contestants down to five, with those people moving on to a second round with more intense and interactive performances.
The final two competitors, “Papa Dom the Beard” and “Trash Can Max,” then performed an “air-off” to decide the winner. The song of choice for the “air off” was “Mississippi Queen” by Mountain, and a trio of judges including Howard rated the performances. In the end, “Trash Can Max” — whose real name is Max Lansdowne — took first place and a handmade guitar case filled with $200 in cash.
“My dad had been telling me about it for a while,” Lansdowne said. “And I actually work for the radio station at K-State. We interviewed Nordic on Wednesday, and he was like, ‘Dude, you’ve got to sign up.’”
Lansdowne, a junior communications studies major at K-State and former Manhattan High soccer standout, said he feels that he could be a successful air guitarist in the future.
“The first one I was pretty nervous for, honestly,” Lansdowne said. “The big thing that kept me going was seeing the reactions of everyone.”
Howard said the “air off” used to determine the winner is “extremely rare,” and the champion was decided by “tenths of a point.”
“I was so surprised I won,” Lansdowne said. “All the other competitors were just amazing.”
Lansdowne said he is talking to Howard about competing in other air guitar venues in the future and possibly organizing more events in Manhattan. Howard said a winning air guitar performance is judged by “your technical merit, your stage presence, and your ‘air-ness’,” but he said vulnerability plays an important role too.
“If you’re willing to be vulnerable … I mean fully, unconditionally vulnerable in front of people, in front of strangers, in front of your friends, and know that everyone here has your back … I think that’s what makes a great champion,” Howard said.
Howard, 38, competed in and won the Air Guitar World Championship in Finland held in August. All previous air guitar champions dating back to 1996 when the competition began were able to participate virtually by submitting 60-second videos of their performances or using recordings from their original winning pieces. The next Air Guitar World Championships will take place in Oulu, Finland in August 2022.
A Chicago native, Howard said he would like to organize some form of regional air guitar competition in the Midwest to funnel into the sanctioned U.S. Air Guitar Finals. He also said he and Sackrider are discussing the possibility of a weeklong air guitar camp in Manhattan.
“Maybe with the help of the champion and Jeff Sackrider, I think we can do it,” Howard said.
Third Thursday events wrapped up with a final air guitar performance to Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” that included the Tatsumaki Yosakoi Japanese dance troupe and members of the crowd. Howard said air guitar competitions are a fun way to bring people together in a compassionate environment.
“You can’t hold a gun,” Howard said, “if you’re holding up an air guitar.”