Preserving a Legacy: A Farewell to Wetlands Preserve (Relix Revisited)

Dean Budnick on October 29, 2012

Following the passing of Wetlands Preserve founder Larry Bloch over the weekend, we look back to the final night of Wetlands and the venue’s history via this piece that originally ran in the December 2001 issue of Relix.

The Bus

Somewhere around 8am on Monday morning, June 28, 1971, New York’s Fillmore East closed its doors for the final time. This celebrated venue had embraced improvisational music with such fervor to garner acclaim seemingly disproportionate to its three-and-a-half year history. Many who attended that final evening lamented the disappearance of a musical locus but also mourned the loss of community.

Three decades later, similar sentiments echoed from the ground floor of a former Tribeca food warehouse somewhere around 8am on Sunday morning, September 29, 2001, when New York’s Wetlands Preserve closed its doors for the final time. An extraordinary twelve-year fusion of social conscience, spirited musical interplay and bus-induced-apoplexy had concluded. It is rare when a performance space, a physical construct, takes on its own engaging identity, but it is further unique today, amidst the current environment of mass-owned and managed venues. Thus while comparisons to its celebrated antecedent – the Fillmore – are apt, it is also essential to acknowledge that Wetlands Preserve was nonpareil.

Let’s face it, the dump rocked.

Okay, that last remark may be too glib. In part, it’s important to remember that before Wetlands opened in February of 1989, Larry Bloch and then-wife Laura invested months of aesthetic deliberation along with more than one million dollars to transform a neglected space into an inviting gathering place and concert hall. By the end of its run, Wetlands had long since installed air conditioning units to outgrow its earlier moniker, Sweatglands. Rather than “dump,” the appropriate descriptive term is simply “club,” in its traditional sense. While Wetlands had become somewhat nicotine-stained and beer-blotted, it still functioned as the clubhouse for a self-selective society of music lovers and activists, with many regular faces, sub-committees (literally) and, at times, a membership that seemed to exceed capacity.

Fun and Activism

When the “eco-saloon” opened on February 12, 1989, Bloch sought to redefine and re-imagine the aims and intents of a music venue by creating a social place that was also an activist center. He expressed this sentiment in part through an inscription he placed on the wall just inside the venue, “we labor to birth our dance with the earth.” This philosophy also impacted the club’s interior design, as Bloch incorporated an “earth station” near the entrance, an “inner sanctum” downstairs for reflection and interchange, as well as the fabled VW Bus (now property of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) which functioned as a nexus, vending merchandise related to the club’s dual pursuits of “fun and activism.” Bloch’s vision also accounted for the stage facing towards a corner wall rather than out into the span of the club so as not to subsume everything into the music space (after Wetlands gained renown this became the principal gripe although, as regulars recognized, if one wanted to stand directly in front of the band, nine times out of ten one simply needed to negotiate a bottleneck and walk to the far side of the room, stage right). Bloch encouraged future patrons to visualize the club through an ad that ran in the September/October 1988 issue of Relix (vol 15, no 5) and promised “a gathering of good people, a meeting of minds, a shaking of bones” (the text also optimistically indicated the venue would open that fall, but most would agree that Wetlands was timeless in every sense of the word).

The club’s mission rendered it something of an anomaly. At times the social consciousness of a capitalist enterprise confounded the media, which often dismissed it as a sixties throwback. Bloch responds, “The absurdity of [such criticism] was the idea that social responsibility somehow should be limited to one period of time, that it shouldn’t be an ongoing part of our daily existence. Wetlands was never about trend or fashion, it was about community, the vision of a better world.” In October 2000 when the club, now under Peter Shapiro’s aegis, received such criticism from a New York weekly (Bloch sold him Wetlands in 1996 after securing a guarantee that Shapiro would perpetuate his exacting standards), Wetlands responded in its ad, “We are not interested in what is being sold as ‘trendy’ at any time – especially if being trendy means being too cool to care about the health of the planet…Check your insecurities at the door if a VW bus threatens your precious au courant image.”

While the Wetlands Environmental and Social and Activism Center initiated a number of successful campaigns (as reported by its aptly-titled newsletter, Wetlands Works ), for many, the club principally remained a home to extraordinary music. It would be facile to suggest that Wetlands started trends, because it eschewed them. Instead, the club’s owners and talent buyers (from Walter Durkacz on through Chris Zahn and Jake Szufnarowski) built a reputation on their flair for presenting bands who reveled in the opportunity to perform challenging, dynamic music before a rarity in the live-concert scene – audiences who actively listened. There were few near misses, the results were either glorious or gimpy (more often the former). One catalyst was the stream of patrons and performers who traveled into the club’s invigorating host city for late, late nights of music attainable in few other areas due to local curfews. The club became a haven in an essential media market, and a destination in its own right that carried sizable cache ( “Invited Back to Wetlands” many press kits proudly puffed).

Phish at Wetlands, 1989

Encroaching on the Preserve

While the venue thrived, so, in a manner of speaking, did its Tribeca neighborhood. The gentrification of the area ultimately resulted in Wetlands’ eviction notice. A developer purchased the building that housed the club and announced that he would raze the edifice and construct condominiums, soliciting tenants who would not be eager to share the new building with a nightclub. Shapiro recalls, “We knew this was in the pipeline but it looked like we might be able to keep it going for a while. It was devastating when it came down so quickly at the end. As soon as we heard. we immediately moved to turn it into party rather than a downer. Although to be honest, once we learned, it was a downer of enormous magnitude.”

With Shapiro, general manager Charley Ryan and co. aggressively working the Wetlands phonebanks, some intriguing shows scheduled for the final few weeks presented reunion performances for musicians and audience members alike. On September 7, old-school Wetlands-dwellers hailed the return of the Spin Doctors and the Authority, two thirds of a power-troika, along with Blues Traveler that helped to define the early years of the club. Eric Shenkman returned to the Spins Docs for an inspired, improvisation-heavy performance that proved particularly heartening (yielding sanguine speculation of what might follow). An equally heady pairing took place on September 3 with God Street Wine’s first show in nearly two years show preceded by a set from previously estranged former Ominous Seapods, Dana Monteith and Max Verna. Two other prominent collectives inspired to band together once again included Nashville’s Screaming Cheetah Wheelies and Fat Mama, a group once at the heart of the club’s jazz/electronica enthusiasm.

Another defining trait of Wetlands was that it had long been used as a touchstone by which to judge a particular group’s development (fans would crow that their favorite band “finally has a gig at Wetlands… is playing all night in the lounge… is headlining upstairs… on a Friday night… and Saturday… is performing a stealth show” ). Despite some routing conflicts brought on by the last-minute nature of the closure, a number of the club’s alumni whose popularity had carried them through the Wetlands continuum and on to larger venues, opted to return for a collective celebration of the club, its staff and its community of concertgoers. On September 1 and 2, Wetlands hosted two “evenings with The Disco Biscuits,” which yielded an epic segued encore on the first night and three sets of guest-laden music on the second. During its final weeks, the club also welcomed three seminal bands who had performed post-dawn New year’s Eve gigs over the preceding four years: Strangefolk (‘97), Deep Banana Blackout (‘98, ‘99) and the New Deal (2000).

The final schedule also attested to the scope of the club’s offerings. The ties between music and social justice were manifested on August 29 with a benefit for the Wetlands Activism Center featuring ulu, Lake Trout, Eric Krasno [Soulive] and Friends, Topaz and Jen Durkin’s Conscious Underground (on an evening when a few old-timers reminisced about one of the club’s celebrated benefits of yore – actually 11/28/90 – with Indigo Girls, Yo La Tengo, Joan Osborne, Freedy Johnson, Mathew Sweet, Lloyd Cole and Richard Lloyd). The September 9 bookings affirmed that Wetlands never focused solely on jam/groove music, as an all-ages Fishbone slamfest matinee preceded a Black Lilly event with Toshi Reagon, Jaguar, Scratch [the Roots] and Jazzyfantasees. The next evening reinforced the notion that part of the majesty of Wetlands was the energy supplied by guest musicians who made the post-2am rounds, as Project Logic opened its second set with a forty-five minute extended improv enlivened by Warren Haynes, Mike Gordon and Stanley Jordan.

Originally RatDog was slated to close the club with a two-night stand on September 14 and 15 (the ticket stub for the 15th riffed on the classic Dead tune to read “One Final Saturday Night” ). With Oysterhead also slated to gig in-city on the 15th, giddy supposition focussed on Trey Anastasio and Les Claypool joining Bob Weir for a thumping version of “Samson and Delilah” ( “…tear this old building down” ) or perhaps even an acoustic “Touch of Grey” ( “we will survive…” ). But then the events of September 11 forever altered the landscape of lower Manhattan. With October 1 looming as the definitive deadline to vacate the premises, it was unclear if Wetlands would host a final “gathering of good people.”

Many Wetlands denizens opined that the venue deserved to reopen for one final community action. Such sentiment emanated from an extended family of staffers, musicians and patrons who took pride in the club. One should not overlook such widespread personal connection to a theoretically impersonal performance space. These individuals celebrated creative bookings, reveled in the latest humorous incarnation of the club’s logo to appear in print ads and savored the victories of the Activism Center. The Fillmore East will forever be viewed as ancillary to epic promoter Bill Graham (his name even appeared on the marquee which read “Bill Graham’s Fillmore East” ). By contrast, through the steady and often egoless efforts of the entire staff of Wetlands employees and volunteers, the club acquired a distinctive personality and achieved its own identity. This is why so many hoped to make one final visit to express their admiration, respect and wonder for all that had transpired at 161 Hudson Street.

Ultimately, through persistence and purpose, the venue opened for two final nights on September 28 and 29. Both of these were free to the public with suggested donations applied to relief efforts. Friday the twenty-eighth dipped into the deep archive of recorded music from the club. The next evening offered the final Wetlands Power Jam, preceded by a brief set from Robert Hunter, whom Shapiro had plied out of retirement. The jam itself offered many of the usual suspects in various incarnations, including members of ulu, Soulive, Zen Tricksters (who quite likely will retire with the record for total Wetlands bookings), Jen Durkin, Topaz and Deep Banana Blackout, following a gig elsewhere in the city (again, perpetuating another longstanding Wetlands tradition). One sublime moment occurred near dawn when Jen Durkin invited everyone to join her on-stage to dance in celebration of Wetlands. All in all, the evening proved to be an affirmation of the spirit of Manhattan, the vitality of the scene and the heart of the club and its patrons. Larry Bloch reinforced this point when he returned to the DJ booth at 5:45am for a final two-and-a-half hour DJ set following a brief speech that reflected the rich legacy of Wetlands as an entity that informed, inspired and entertained. A drained Shapiro joined him in exhausted exaltation because when all was said and done it had been a fine, fine party.