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Catching big air

Chicago's Nordic Thunder flies to Finland for the Air Guitar World Championships

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When Justin Howard steps from the wings to take center stage at Metro, he looks like he's walked out of a poster charting the evolution of man—unkempt, hairy, and dressed in what appear to be hides and furs, he'd fit in a step or two to the left of Homo sapiens. The 28-year-old bearded barbarian is known in the demimonde of U.S. Air Guitar as Nordic Thunder, and though his ax is imaginary, the rock-god reception he draws from the crowd is real.

Howard, a video editor for Rotary International who lives in Ukrainian Village, stalks the stage in a brown leather chest piece and a loincloth sewn together from thrift-store purses and hair extensions fished from a Dumpster behind a beauty-supply store. He earned his spot at the July 23 finals of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships by winning the Chicago regional competition in May—his fourth such win since 2006—and at Metro he's a hometown favorite. This is his fourth trip to the national finals, where he's never advanced past the opening round.

To kick off his first-round performance, Howard hoists a hollowed-out horn and gulps stale beer from it. He points to the heavens and the heavens answer with "Sirius," the Alan Parsons Project instrumental synonymous with Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. With each booming guitar reverberation, Howard windmills like Pete Townshend and spits a mist of beer into the green lights overhead. A crack of strobe lightning signals a break into a snippet of "Dragon Chaser," by German power-metal band At Vance. Howard whips his long dark hair, head-banging as he picks invisible strings. He crams as much Scandinavian jukebox fury as humanly possible into 60 seconds, and when his brief routine is over, the crowd is his.

The judges declare him among the best of the 22 first-round competitors—only five are supposed to make it to the second and final round, but due to tie scores, ten do. An hour later, Howard shreds Mötley Crüe's "Dr. Feelgood"—for this round the judges pick one song for everyone—and cuts his knees and feet to ribbons with the night's most impressive move, a bare-knee slide that carries him all the way across the stage (he only wears his handmade leather boots for round one). It's a risky stunt for a guy who tore a meniscus in his knee playing air guitar in 2005 and ruptured a disk in his back and herniated two more during the 2008 Chicago regionals. Despite his injuries, he competed in the 2008 U.S. finals eight weeks later—but afterward he needed surgery and was laid up for three months.

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