Oestreich, Joe. Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. Guilford, Connecticut; Lyons Press, 2012.
Hitless Wonder begins with the author’s band (Columbus’s Watershed) playing for an almost non-existent audience in a bar in Detroit—the first stop on a ten-show tour. The local opening act has pulled out and there is no one to see the headliner. There are people in the bar, but none willing to pay for concert’s five dollar admission. The band waits at the bar while the club manager tries to talk them out of playing. The reader has already figured out that Oestreich is going to document the tour and it would not be far fetched to think we are in for a tragic-comedy. A band that once almost made it—over a decade before—is on one last failed tromp around old stomping grounds that are no longer looking for the next Watershed record.
Instead, Hitless Wonder is full of hope as the tale of the current tour is weaved together with the history of the band—dating back to when Oestreich and guitarist-vocalist Colin Gawel started playing together in high school. With every empty dive bar, there is A&R showcase concert, a record deal with Epic (be it short lived), and performing in front of ten thousand at Polaris Amphitheater for Blitzapalooza. Even the current tour has anticipation building for the final concert at the 2,200-seat LC Pavillion in Columbus. Will C-Bus still remember Watershed?
I’ve never listened to Watershed and surprisingly—for one who looked at many concert listings and album reviews in the late nineties—the name did not ring a bell when I picked up Hitless Wonder. Other reader’s in my boat should not be discouraged—this book may still be for you. The way Oestreich tells the story, there is almost no mention of the band’s work in the first half of Hitless Wonder; they could be any band listed at shows at the Grog Shop, McGuffy’s, or Ruby Tuesday’s (the Columbus venue, not the chain). The band is an everyman in the industry at a time when local scenes mattered (or did they?), record labels still had A&R men, and there were no worries about one’s Internet presence.
There was an interesting documentary about the Replacements, Color Me Obsessed (2011), where the filmmakers use no music from the band (or interviews with the band) in telling the band’s story. While I have an unsubstantiated hunch that the cost of the music rights may have played a factor in the silence, the film is kind of amazing. Just hearing other people talk about a band—their joys and regrets—elevates listening to records and going to shows to a mythic level. I could imagine someone never hearing the Minneapolis band walking away a fan. My point: I guess I kind of pictured Watershed sounding like the Replacements.* That said, Hitless Wonder does a good job not only documenting one band, but tells a story that crosses music, dreams, and the idea of just growing old. If you are not enjoying it, it is a tragedy.
*The Replacements do come up often in Oestreich’s memoir, with a nice section on guitarist Slim Dunlap, whose song “Ballad of the Opening Band” could be the soundtrack for Hitless Wonder.