If this year’s Rock Hunt had been a movie, critics would have called out the ending for being too obvious, but in real life it was the kind of thing you never saw coming. Picture it: a band made up of a bunch of bright-eyed high schoolers with nothing to lose. They make a Hail Mary bid for the wild card slot in a battle of the bands, make the cut and then manage to win over three groups who have been slugging it out in clubs and bars since before these kids had even picked up their guitars.
So there I was at the WBRU Rock Hunt finals at The Met in Pawtucket, mildly amused at the thought of a bunch of teenagers squeaking in at the last minute. They’d be cute, I figured, eager but lacking the polish to stand a chance. Their age would have kept them from developing the chops of their competitors, or more importantly, having accrued the necessary amount of heartache, experience and cynicism to pull it off. I mean what’s rock and roll without some emotional baggage? But then they took the stage, and by the end of their first song it was pretty obvious that these kids were musically wise beyond their years.
Against all odds and expectations they came out and killed it. I mean they absolutely slayed. Despite all of the years under the collective belts of the other three bands, Public Alley managed a singularly outstanding performance. It was a tightly arranged, high-energy 30 minutes of indie pop. There was a trumpet, accordions, an out-of-left-field rap. The whole band was erupting with charm and an infectious amount of enthusiasm. It was fun, damn it; an honest-to-goodness blast to watch from start to finish. When they walked away champions the only people surprised were the members of Public Alley.
“We never saw ourselves in this situation,” says singer Zoë Hinman.
After their eleventh hour submission to the Rock Hunt – which as they tell it was literally conceived and submitted an hour before the midnight deadline – failed to earn them a spot competing in the semi-finals, drummer Max Fertik caught wind of the wild card slot.
The band, all of whom are students at East Greenwich High School, with the exception of keyboard player Szabi Kiss who is currently studying at MIT, embarked on an aggressive campaign to get into the finals. “We were really passionate about getting this spot,” adds Zoë.
As passionate as they were, their expectations weren’t too high once they earned that coveted fourth spot. “We went into it thinking it was a good gig, we’d get to play with these great bands we’ve been listening to and get our name out there,” says bass player Cam Cianciolo. For them being there genuinely seemed to be enough of a reward. “We used to talk about being in the Rock Hunt the way people talk about what they would do if they won the lottery,” says Zoë.
She doesn’t just say that to be polite or faux-humble. For them, Rock Hunt is Olympus, inhabited by a pantheon of local rock gods who have won the competition before them. As they start listing previous winners – The Rare Occasions, The Wandas, Roz and the Rice Cakes – they become increasingly more excited. Noah spoke about seeing 2009 winner Fairhaven play at Lupo’s a few years back with an almost spiritual reverence. “When
I listened to them then, I didn’t think of them as just a Rock Hunt winner, I thought of them as Young the Giant and OK Go. They were a famous band to me. I looked up to them.”
Playing Lupo’s is one of the spoils that comes with winning the Rock Hunt – “Thinking that we’re going to be on that stage blows my mind,” says Cam – as is a spot during WBRU’s free Summer Concert Series on July 24 at 7pm at Waterplace Park, which last year saw performances by national acts like Phantogram and Kongos.
Even WBRU’s studio is hallowed ground. “The most overwhelming part of seeing the studio was the stairway signed by every band that’s ever played there,” says Max. “We might be able to sign that.”
For Public Alley, the Rock Hunt isn’t a stepping stone to the big break, it is the big break. As far as they’re concerned they’ve made it, and with that locked down, it’s just back to making catchy, high-energy rock and roll.