Images courtesy of Groove U
A few weeks ago I wrote about the history of Groove U and their annual Instaband competition. I had the opportunity to speak with several students and staff, and after learning about this competition a few years back, I was genuinely excited to be able to participate in the event. The return of live shows to Columbus gave Groove U the opportunity they needed to make the show an extravagant event once again.
Even with a bitter rainstorm falling in the Arena District, there were fans lined up at the door waiting to enter when I arrived. The A+R Music Bar was populated with students and staff from Groove U helping with everything from passing out programs to stage setup to taking videos and pictures backstage. The three judges for the night were set up in the back of the concert hall, and you could feel the anticipation in the air from the students, staff, and performers alike. After the last two tumultuous years, I know I will never take live shows for granted again.
With it being the 10 year anniversary for Instaband, Groove U decided pulled out all the stops for entertainment, bringing back 4 former performers and emcee Cameron Fontana of Good Day Columbus (ABC6/Fox 28). The opening performer was last year’s runner up Gabe Elliott, who opened his set with an Avenged Sevenfold cover which was brilliantly done despite only playing an acoustic guitar. He had a mournful voice that reminded me of early Creed or Days of the New, and after he finished Fontana came up to give us the rundown on the activities for the evening.
The battle of the bands criteria was broken down into 60% of the judges vote and 40% of the fans vote. Each of the 5 performers would have ten minutes to perform 2 of their songs, and then each judge would give feedback before the next artist took the stage. The first to perform was Payton Ramirez, who I was shocked to learn was a high school sophomore. She had such a soulful voice and I would not be surprised if you found her in coffee shops and bars all around the state in a few years.
The second act was a trio called Paper Notes, who had only just performed for the first time at the semifinals. They had come together as a high school project and featured a wonderfully quirky set that made me wish they could have played more than just two songs. The judges had mostly positive feedback for the first two artists, giving them critiques that they will certainly be able to use for future musical endeavors.
2019 Instaband champions Forever Unknown played a few tracks off of their upcoming EP Say It Back, as well as one of the songs they performed during their championship performance three years prior. Up next was Callan Foster, looking exceptionally sharp in a blue suit and showing his musical talents on both piano and guitar. The crowd cheered louder for Foster than they had all night, and by the judges reaction I was almost sure he was going to be crowned the winner. But we still had two artists that needed to perform before the trophies were handed out.
Fontana did a brief interview with each of the artists as they left the stage, and after Foster departed we were treated to the bluesy voice of James Gross, whose songs showed incredible storytelling prowess. His semifinal performance was my favorite and after hearing him live I decided that he was going to be the one I cast my vote for as well. The connectivity aspect of Instaband was on full display as both Gross and Foster were found after the performances making potential plans to work together in the future.
The final competitor was a Cleveland trio called Psychofuzz, whose name perfectly matched their driving distorted sound. The group had the most positive reaction from the judges, as well as the most people in the pit for their performance. They were an intriguing style break after the host of singer/songwriters who had performed before them, and all three of the judges had nothing but positive comments to give.
The next alumni performer was 2021 winner Sadie Storts, who almost certainly could move to Nashville and score a recording contract if she wanted. Everyone I had spoken with previously praised her talents and her skill was on full display, despite following a markedly different group before her. Lastly was 2019’s runner up Ink, who featured a current student from Groove U and loud greasy riffs. I can’t tell you the last time I saw a show with 9 different performers, but each artist brought something unique and had an enjoyable set. Ink’s performance certainly roused the crowd into a frenzy before exiting the stage.
There was a brief intermission as the fan votes were finished being tabulated, and Fontana returned with Groove U founder Dwight Heckelman to announce the winners. There are some competitions where there is a clear-cut favorite, but for this one there was a definite haze of unease in the air, as any of the final 3 performers could have been victorious. But after Gross was awarded 3rd and Foster 2nd, there was no doubt that it would be the Cleveland trio that took home the prize.
I had the chance to sit down with Psychofuzz after their performance, and they told me that they felt confident coming into the evening, despite the fact that they had only performed together three times previously. All three said that working together as a group had helped them overcome any stage fright they might have had. In fact, singer/guitarist Ty Jacobs said that the thing that made him the most nervous was that the four artists who performed before them were so talented.
The group met at Cleveland’s School of Rock after being in previous bands before, and all agreed that either Rush’s Permanent Waves or Physical Graffiti from Led Zeppelin was their desert island album. Both are wonderfully refreshing choices for humans born more than two decades after their release, and the progressive influences were definitely heard in their performance. Not that there’s a right or wrong answer to that question – personally I might take Matchbox Twenty’s Mad Season, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The group was looking forward to recording with Groove U’s Elementary Records imprint and conveyed that they had several unreleased songs that they were excited to bring to studio. They were also hoping that their parents would let them stay home from school on Friday… I haven’t had the chance to follow up to see if they were granted such a rock-star privilege, but I’m sure after the long trip back down 71 they would be afforded some sort of grace.
As winners of the 2022 edition, Psychofuzz will now receive a 1 year contract with Elementary Records, which includes recording and production of an EP, a music video and promotions. I’ll be excited to see what direction their sound takes and will certainly be following each of the finalists from this year. If I were you, I would certainly keep an eye on future Groove U projects, as they seem to have their finger on the pulse of fresh young musical talent in Ohio.
The good folks at Groove U made a video recap for the show as well, which can be found here. Big thanks to their entire staff for being so inviting and allowing us to cover the event!