Wetlands Founder Larry Bloch, 1953-2012
On February 16, 1989 Larry Bloch and a team of novices achieved something unique in a former Chinese-food warehouse just south of the Holland Tunnel in Manhattan. Not only did this inexperienced collective open a nightclub in the mostly-undeveloped Tribeca region but they created one that fused music with activism in an altogether distinctive manner. As part of the club’s monthly operating budget Bloch created and funded a not-for- profit Center for Social and Environmental Justice to a tune of $100,000+ per year.
This self-styled “Eco-Saloon,” would come to embody a spirit, a community, an ethos. People still rave about the time they first encountered Blues Traveler, Phish, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, moe., The Disco Biscuits, Ben Harper, or Agnostic Front at the club. Others never visited, but have seen the signature Wetlands bus in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or have listened to the celebrated live recordings that originated from the club’s intimate stage. Still others participated in Wetlands’ working groups for social and environmental advocacy and remain tethered to its influential Activism Center.
Bloch, who passed away on Sunday in Brattleboro, Vermont, eight months following his initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, was inspired to open Wetlands by his dual passions for improvisational music and grassroots activism. He founded the club in an effort to realize both goals. Undeterred by his lack of experience as club owner, in such a challenging environment as New York City, Bloch simply put his head down and realized a vision that many dismissed as impossible.
Given his perspective, the venue was idiosyncratic. For instance the stage did not face out into the room but was tucked away in the corner.
As Bloch later recalled, “I wanted a place that had lots of nooks and crannies, at least two levels. I didn’t want a long rectangular room where one end was the stage and the other end was the bar and in between everyone would be sitting or standing and that would be the nightclub…The stage was first of all always envisioned to be a low stage, to create intimacy. Even though I understood that most stages were higher than our stage and higher meant you could see the band better. I regarded that as less important than the intimacy of band and audience. As well as everything else was supposed to be less ego-oriented and when a band is up on stage, it’s more like band worship. I wanted it more like people playing cool music for their friends.”
He achieved such a goal with numerous acts doing just as he intended. Bob Weir reflected, “I remember a place that had a lot of different spaces, a lot of different rooms and stuff like that-unusual for a concert facility but from every little nook you could still see the stage somehow, which was kind of cool.’
Dave Matthews added, “I don’t necessarily want to go back to having to play clubs every night but certainly Wetlands has got to be my favorite memory of a club if there’s going to be any.”
In the documentary film Wetlands Preserved: The Story of An Activist Rock Club, Rob Barraco (Phil Lesh Quintet, Zen Tricksters Dark Star Orchestra) shared a memory that speaks to this as well: “I’ll tell you what I loved about Larry. One day he was yelling at the soundman, ‘The bathroom mixes are not right. The left and right balances are not correct, fix them.’ So I go up to the soundman, ‘There are stereo mixes in the bathroom?’ And he says, ‘Larry.’”
Another signature feature was the Wetlands bus, which currently is located in the Rock and Roll of fame of Fame. Bloch’s vision for the Volkswagen was “I wanted it to be functional, where someone could sit inside and eventually sell tickets, sell merchandise and facilitate the Earth Station,” which was the focus of activism in the club.
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