Onetime local rocker returns to ComFest with new essay collection and forthcoming book on Ryan Adams

Years ago, a Watershed performance at ComFest wouldn't have been all that unusual. Whether cradling a Fish Boat sandwich and Skittle-colored beer mug at the annual Party with a Purpose or raising rawk hands at any number of sticky-floored venues around town, fans could catch sets by the beloved local power-pop act on the regular.

Watershed never stopped rocking, but ever since bassist/co-vocalist Joe Oestreich skipped town to pursue a writing career several years ago, live shows have been few and far between. On Saturday, though, for the first time since 2006, Oestreich and guitarist/co-vocalist Colin Gawel, alongside guitarist Rick Kinsinger and original drummer Herb Schupp, will perform on ComFest's main stage.

“I would be incredibly fired up just to go to ComFest this year,” said Oestreich by phone from Conway, South Carolina, where he teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University. “The fact that Watershed gets to play, and that we get to play sandwiched between the Floorwalkers and Willie Phoenix, our hero — that just seems like a gift from the gods.”

Watershed hopes to have a new record out by next spring, but in the meantime, Oestreich has new releases of his own — Partisans, a collection of essays published last month, and Waiting to Derail: Whiskeytown: The Brilliant Wreck that Launched Ryan Adams, due in May of 2018.

Partisans follows on the heels of Oestreich's Lines of Scrimmage (2015), which relayed the true story of a racially charged 1989 high school football season that divided a small town, and Hitless Wonder (2012), a vivid, masterfully written account of Watershed's years in “minor league rock and roll.”

Oestreich's new collection draws from pieces he published in various journals between 2006 and 2016 and is named after an essay in which a vacation to Mexico becomes a squirmingly honest meditation on football, racism and marriage. “‘Partisans' was actually the last essay that was written, and it's literally about teams and picking sides,” Oestreich said. “Who do you root for? Who are your allegiances with? That idea of trying to figure out who I stand with and who stands next to me seemed to encapsulate the themes I saw working through the other pieces.”

Whether hilariously describing an embarrassing, decades-old tattoo (“Take a greasy White Castle box and let it bake on your dashboard for six months — that's a fair approximation of the tattoo I've got,” he writes in “The Botch Job”) or describing his eccentric friend Dave Cook (“a body built for loosening rusted bolts and stuck lug nuts”), Oestreich's prose is rich with cinematic detail.

“You don't want to include so many things that you create this white noise of detail that the important things get lost,” Oestreich said. “I try to pick the one or two things that do triple duty: it helps the reader see the place; it teaches the reader something about the place and the characters; and it teaches the reader something about what I feel about the place. If a detail can do those three things, maybe it has then earned its place in the piece.”

Oestreich wrote “The Bodyman” about Cook, a Columbus man born with a rare genetic disorder, while still in graduate school after writing a couple of memoir-style pieces. “I specifically did not want to write about myself, and I thought, ‘Who's the most interesting person I know?' I instantly thought of Dave,” Oestreich said. “He's an interesting person in and of himself, but also the disease he happens to have taps into a larger issue about the lack of healthcare and access to medication. He flies in the face of what we're told life is supposed to live like. He pretty much lives off the grid and is really happy doing it that way.”

“I love the way [magazine writer] Gay Talese would write about regular people, but he would treat them with the kind of care and respect that you usually see in pieces about famous people,” Oestreich continued. “So I wanted to treat Dave like he was a famous person, even though he's not. You don't have to be famous to be worthy of attention.”

For the forthcoming Waiting to Derail, Oestreich teamed up with Thomas O'Keefe, a former tour manager for Whiskeytown, the 1990s alt-country band that gave Ryan Adams his start. The book is told from O'Keefe's perspective. “Every story that anybody has ever heard [regarding] the legend of Ryan Adams — the time he caused a melee in East Lansing; the time he fired the entire band onstage during a show in Kansas City; or the time that the hippie bouncers at the Fillmore in San Francisco got so mad at him they almost beat him up — Thomas was there for all of those,” Oestreich said. “Ryan was one of the groomsmen in Thomas' wedding, and Ryan used to live with Thomas. There was a time when they were really good friends.”

Oestreich and O'Keefe reached out to Adams early on, but he declined to participate in the book. “Ryan really has no interest whatsoever in looking backwards. All he does is look forward to the next thing. As Thomas says, he gets sick of a song while he's still writing it,” Oestreich said. “When we wrote the book proposal, one of the things we said was, ‘The best person to write this book would be Ryan himself, but we don't think he's ever gonna do it.'”

The book does include interviews with every other member of Whiskeytown — around a dozen people. “So many people went in and out of that band,” Oestreich said. “In Raleigh, [North Carolina], there used to be shirts that said, ‘I played in Whiskeytown and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.'”