"Air-rivederci" is a proud Italian-American in his late 40s who lives in his parents’ basement on Long Island. He wears a soft velour track jacket over a low white tank. His favorite musicians are Ozzy Osborne and Dio, and his favorite movie is Saturday Night Fever, obviously. With a thick New York accent, Air shares with me his love for "Ma, above all else," but then—just below that—his love for playing air guitar. 

Air-rivederci is the brainchild of Matthew Hutchinson, a mild-mannered man who lives in Southwest Portland with his partner and their very large cat. Nothing seems out of the ordinary in their apartment until you notice the thick padding that covers their living room floor. It's there so Hutchinson can practice his rock and roll licks, jumps, and kicks on a sick six-string that isn’t there.

Hutchinson hopes to shred as Air-rivederci at the US Air Guitar National Finals this Saturday July 16. Air guitar nationals is a thing I did not know about until a few days ago, but I am now knee-deep in the surprisingly expansive and loving air guitar subculture. The motto of US Air Guitar is: "You can’t hold a gun while you play the air guitar." It's both very sweet and totally true. Hutchinson discovered air guitar as a college student, when he elected to watch the 2006 documentary Air Guitar Nation for a project; he hoped for an easy A, but found a whole new way of life.

I asked Hutchinson if he knew how to play the guitar. He said yes. I asked if it was necessary. He said no. What matters is the vibe. The performance. The attitude that says: “You cannot possibly care that I’m not holding a guitar, nor can you deny that I am rocking your socks off.” 

Whoever wins Saturday's US nationals will advance to the World Finals, held annually in Finland, to compete with air guitarists from all over the world, in hopes of being crowned World Champion Air Guitarist. Will there be an actual crown, or is this also an air item? If my foray into this sport has taught me anything so far, it’s that an item need not exist physically to carry value. Heavy is the head that wears the crown—or the arm that grinds the ax—regardless of whether or not it’s real.

So the stakes could not possibly be higher, but one does not simply shred into nationals. Hutchinson is a Dark Horse contender, and he's been training and competing for a maximum of two outlier spots who will have a chance to compete alongside the other US champions.

At a secret show on Thursday evening, 12 competitors will unleash their sickest riffs in hopes of winning a spot at Saturday’s finals. Will Hutchinson have what it takes? Knowing nothing about his competition, I say yes. While Air-rivederci may be new on the scene, Hutchinson is not; he was the Portland regional champion back in 2013 performing as Fingerlickin Good, a glam rock god. He did well in Nationals, but didn’t win it.

After several years off, this is Hutchinson’s comeback operation, and Air-rivederci is his new persona. Watching Hutchinson practice—to a song by The Darkness—I saw powerful riffs, perfectly timed licks, and that rock and roll thing where you raise one of your hands into the air towards the crowd. I was impressed! It seemed so real! 

If Hutchinson-as-Air-rivederci makes it to Saturday's nationals, he'll unveil a new song to the public and some yet-unseen moves. Even if he doesn't advance, the competition will still showcase up to 20 regional winners from across the country. One thing is for certain: This is already Air-rivederci’s pantomimed world; we’re just for real living in it.

[UPDATE: Air-rivederci did very well in the Dark Horse competition and WILL ADVANCE to the National Finals on Saturday. This ain't over!]

The US Air Guitar National Finals take place at Dante’s,  350 W Burnside, Sat July 16, 8 pm, $15 tickets, 21+.