I've got some fond memories of Smokefreerockquest finals. There was something butterfly-inducingly-exciting about hanging out in a dark theatre, jumping around listening to crazy music at the age of 14. Rock musicians were cool and were somehow indefinably different to us classical music geeks. I hoped that by watching them, I'd be a smidgen cooler by association. In fact, it's likely that's where my love of live music began. It's also been the start of many a successful Kiwi music career. Bic Runga, Anika Moa, Die! Die! Die!, Kids of 88, Midnight Youth, Elemeno P, Cut Off Your Hands, Brooke Fraser, The Datsuns, Kora, The Naked and Famous ... to name just a few that have passed through the competition.
It's been an institution for 23 years, but it's been a fair while since I attended a Rockquest final. And this year, the organisers decided to step things up a notch, holding the finals on Saturday afternoon at the brand new, and rather flash Claudelands Arena in Hamilton, so I couldn't resist heading south for a bit of a nosey. Plus, I wanted to see if I felt any cooler now, standing among these budding rock stars, than I did back in high school.
This may not be a revelation if you're a parent of a teenager or a high school teacher, but after a very enjoyable Saturday, I'd wager that kids these days are cooler than they've ever been. Not cooler in that they all have smartphones, wear black jeans and seem to know far too much about the world, but cooler in the sense that they're more mature, more confident, more stylish, and more comfortable in their own skin. And perhaps they deserve to be, given the talent on display.
And we're not talking about talented Rihanna or Jason DeRulo clones - these guys seem to take their inspirations as much from their parents' record collections or indie artists as they do from the top 40.
The winning seven-piece band, The Peasants (three girls, four guys, all very stylishly and tastefully attired), displayed echoes of Fleetwood Mac and Florence and the Machine - lead singer Georgia Nott (who also semi-conducted the group with her percussion mallets) certainly has a goosebump-inducing voice. Solo pop singer-songwriter Massad Barakat-Devine (who has a casual flair like Jamie Cullum) has already worked hard enough to earn NZ On Air video funding and record an album and, with his second place winnings he'll undoubtedly be gracing our ears and eyes in future. It was third place-taking Attic Sky's fourth time in the competition, and that experience shone when they again took the stage later in the evening during the star-heavy Kiwi Cream concert, in the unenviable position of performing between very impressive sets from Supergroove and Shihad.
Their melodic-punk tunes were energetic and very tight, and they seemed unfazed by the much larger crowd and high calibre of their stage-mates.
But for all that, there were a couple of moments that reminded me they're still kids. There were a few in the audience enthusiastically doing dirty dancing knee slides along the arena floor, along with some mighty glowstick-waving. And when two likely young lads from one of the final six bands (who will remain nameless) sidled up to the bar during the function afterwards, and cheekily asked for a beer, I couldn't help but smile.
Fortunately it's still easy enough to spot their youthfulness in a crowd full of adults, and their bashful grins and jovial attitude as they were turned down confirmed for me that while they may be cool, they do know they're not quite rock star adults yet.