Gentlemen Hall drove to Billboard & Chevy's Battle of the Bands live showdown at Las Vegas' Freemont Street Experience on Wednesday (May 18) knowing they were up against tough competition from the five other finalists chosen by Billboard.com voters -- especially California's sweet-voiced AJ Rafael and his vocal supporters. But the Boston rockers eked out the win on the force of a charismatic double-vocalist assault that swayed the evenings MC, Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath and the panel of Billboard and music industry judges.
"I don't know what just happened! It doesn't seem real," Gentlemen Hall's Seth Hachen said in pleased disbelief moments after winning the contest, which awards the band a coveted appearance at May 22's Billboard Music Awards.
They're looking forward to being onstage in a huge arena and sharing the same space as the major stars appearing at the Billboard Music Awards, which include Rihanna , the Black Eyed Peas , Cee Lo Green  and Keith Urban . "We're little fishes getting to swim with the big fishes," he said excitedly backstage.
Finalist Rafael, from Riverside, Calif., also impressed the panel of judges, which included McGrath, Fertility co-founder/President Marc Messmer, Billboard Editorial Director Bill Werde and Billboard.com managing editor Jessica Letkemann. He took Gentlemen Hall's win in stride, saying, "I respect them a lot" before adding, "but I have a feeling [Billboard's audience] will hear from me again," with a big smile.
Rafael, Gentlemen Hall, and the contest's other four finalists -- Seattle's dapper Hotels, Houston's tireless Otenki, Charlotte N.C.'s rocking Side By Side, and Michigan's poppy Lightning Love -- literally had a long road to make it to the the bright neon-lit stage at the Battle of the Bands live finale Wednesday. After being chosen by a vote of Billboard.com visitors from a pool of 18 promising under-the-radar acts found via BillboardPro's Heat Score index and Billboard editorial staff, the six finalists from around the country hit the highway the week of May 9, in vehicles provided by Chevy and with a video crew in tow, to document the trip to Vegas.
The number of video views, visits to the bands' pages at Billboard.com/battle , tweets and Facebook mentions comprised a social score that was factored in to the judges' decision.
The spirit of comraderie that pervaded the night -- see Side By Side high-fiving Gentlemen Hall as they took the 3rd Street Stage -- was particularly highlighted by the frontrunners. Early in the night, AJ Rafael band member Noah Bartfield and Gentlemen Hall's Gavin McDevitt joked about kicking each others' asses in the competition when they thought no one was listening. But when asked about the friendly rivalry, the pair revealed they had bonded over the Battle of the Bands' two-month run because they'd discovered one's brother was the other's close friend.
Both groups also shared big plans for the coming months. Rafael has an album, "Red Roses," due out June 7 (available on iTunes). At the Wednesday showdown, Gentlemen Hall's winning set included its kinetic new single, "Blush," which is now available on iTunes. They're also putting the finishing touches on an EP they've been carefully crafting all year. The as-yet-untitled record will be out later this year.
"The chemistry of our band is key," McDevitt said of how Gentlemen Hall approached its winning set, hoping it showed "how much we're in love with music." Judging by the way that the band -- McDevitt, Hachden, Phil Boucher, Rory Given, Brad Alderman and Jacob Michael -- completely won the crowd over into a spontaneously-hand-waving frenzy, it did show.
See our newly crowned Battle of the Bands winner Gentlemen Hall on the Billboard Music Awards, broadcast live from Las Vegas on ABC on May 22 at 8pm ET/PT. And be sure to check out our full coverage of the Billboard Music Awards at Billboard.com/BBMA .