Preserving a Legacy: A Farewell to Wetlands Preserve (Relix Revisited)
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.
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).
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Beth Hart shares the opening track from her latest album, Bang Bang Boom Boom, live at Relix.
Jamie Lidell sets up in the Relix boiler room and delivers a tune from his 2005 album Multiply
Duane Trucks is happy to announce his new project, King Lincoln. Watch them perform “Coffee” live and acoustic at Relix’s Online-Video Coordinator’s loft in Williamsburg.
Here’s another song from Crystal Bowersox’s new record All That For This, live at Relix.
WYATT share a song in the famed Relix boiler room.
Goodnight, Texas share a song from their latest studio album, A Long Life of Living, live at Relix.
Warren Haynes performs a solo, acoustic version of “Railroad Boy” and explains how he adapted the traditional Celtic song for Gov’t Mule, backstage at the Hangout Music Festival.
Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
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