The Super Guitar Bros promised a special surprise before their penultimate number, the theme to the original Nintendo epic “Castlevania,” to the pre-trivia crowd at Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema on June 16.
The opener, Professor Shyguy, aka Brandt Cooley, joined the two acoustic guitarists for an unexpected delicacy: Britney Spears’ worldwide hit from yesteryear, “Toxic.” Steven Poissant strummed the chords on his steel-string Martin dreadnought, Sam Griffin plucked the trebly, infectious hook on his nylon-string classical and Shyguy nailed Spears’ oozing delivery in bright, clear falsetto.
Perhaps this mainstream treat seems out of left field from a trio of nerds on tour, but it capped off the Video Game Music Showcase in a way that exemplified how well the two acts melded together.
Their mutual friend and de facto road manager Jonna Renee recalled how Shyguy and the Bros came together.
“I just said, ‘Y’all should tour,’ and they said, ‘All right!’” Renee said.
Simple as that, the Playing Games with Hearts tour was born.
Shyguy and the Bros first played together at Ruby Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio (unaffiliated with the restaurant chain), then hit Kentucky, Tennessee, Asheville’s Sol Bar and the Abari Game Bar in Charlotte.
While Cooley plays professionally as Professor Shyguy, this month-long excursion marks Griffin and Poissant’s first tour together.
“We didn’t follow the usual progression of a band, where you grow out of your local area,” Poissant said, as Totally Rad Trivia raged in the background.
“Our ‘local area’ is YouTube,” Griffin added.
The Bros, of Commerce Township, Mich., initially bonded over a shared love of guitar back in 2007. Griffin had been playing a set with a singer-songwriter friend at a coffee shop, and Poissant shyly approached Griffin after the show to ask if he wanted to jam.
“It almost felt like asking a girl out,” Poissant laughed.
Fast friends, they hung out nearly every day, playing guitar and video games. They soon blended their hobbies, showing off video-game themes they’d learned.
The Bros soon launched an official YouTube channel and garnered a cult following, with some of their videos capturing well over a million views.
Griffin and Poissant switch off roles between melody and accompaniment as dictated by needed tone, hit tiny nuances (like the subtle glissando in the “Super Mario World” castle theme) and finger complex chord voicings with ease. They perform each piece so artfully and effortlessly that one might assume the MIDI tunes were composed on guitar.
With such a niche medium and audience, each theme had its own fans. Individual audience members shouted their approval whenever favorites from “Starfox,” “Earthbound,” “Donkey Kong Country” or “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” began.
The knowing crowd laughed at some in-jokes.
One came as the Bros played the Nintendo Wii menu theme. A pause after the second repeat and Poissant wiping his brow led many to applaud, thinking the number finished, but the duo launched back into a final recapitulation to the crowd’s delight.
The relaxing pace of the Super Guitar Bros flipped expectations from most shows as their opener, Professor Shyguy, was a one-man power generator.
“He’s just a punch in the face,” Griffin said.
Shyguy, from Baltimore, plays original chiptunes — lo-fi electronica reminiscent of 8-bit video game music. Cooley’s style hops between electro-pop, crunchy guitar metal and R&B. He punctuates his songs, fully composed and preprogrammed from four-on-the-floor bass drum to harmonies, with power-up arpeggios on his synthesizer. Not to mention the transcendent shred-and-tap guitar on his Guitendo — a NES Paul, if you will — an original Nintendo equipped with a single humbucker near the bridge, his picking accentuated by green LED knuckles.
“When I split off from my band [the Aeronauts], I wanted to do something different,” Cooley said in an interview. “I was trying to do R&B, but I couldn’t work it from my personality, so I moved to pop about nerdy stuff. I have content for days.”
Shyguy’s clever tunes cover topics from Dr. Who and the internet to “the mythical friendzone” and pop songs themselves.
“My simple pop song/ Is kind of complicated/ My simple pop song/ Is kind of overrated,” Cooley sings in his tenor as backup vocals intone, “Repetition, repetition,” over and over.
Cooley didn’t shy away from covers either, playing Tool’s “Forty-Six & 2” and a version of “Johnny B. Goode” with a modulating odyssey of a coda featuring quotations from the Eagles’ “Hotel California” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird.”
He also appealed to another new nerdy work.
“I’m gonna rap,” Cooley announced. “It’s gonna be weird.”
Shyguy then launched into the opening number from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash, Hamilton.
The common link between the two acts played between Cooley’s songs: video game music, specifically, the haunting castle and warp zone themes from “Super Mario Bros. 3.”
Stylistically, Professor Shyguy and the Super Guitar Bros couldn’t be much more different. But while plenty of sunlight separate their sets, dorkiness and a love of classic games unites them.