Two days after Valentine’s Day 1989, a small club opened in the then-deserted wasteland of Tribeca, New York City. Its aim was bold, visionary, and naïve: to create a space for improvised music and build a center for social activism. Wetlands Preserve did both: it became a venue for the emergent jam band scene and a hub for action on a number of environmental and social issues. Wetlands Preserved: The Story of An Activist Nightclub (2006) documents the rise and fall of this unique enterprise, one that was both inspired by–but in no way limited to–the 1960s hippie ethic.
Club founder and deadhead Larry Block was the man with the vision. Using funds borrowed from his father, he set out to create a venue that would provide a home for improvisational music and be a force for change in the community; Wetlands would lead by example while keeping a pretty serious party rolling. From insisting on paper straws to enviro-friendly toilet paper, his was an exacting vision indeed. To its credit, neither the film nor Block shy away from the toll that such a passion took on his family and on many of those around him. At the end of the film, well after Block is established as the hero of the tale, we revisit Block’s poignant and self-centered story of responding to his son’s request to spend more time with him. A bold move on the part of first-time director (and Senior Editor of Relix) Dean Budnick, this latter scene depicts a flawed but human character that fits with the club’s free ethos.
That ethos was built on Grateful Dead-style improvisational rock. Wetlands became a springboard for many bands who gained fame in the jam band scene of the mid ’90s. The documentary features interviews with Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, Dave Matthews Band, Ani diFranco, Joan Osbourne, and Fishbone, as well as rare audio and video of club performances. As the club evolved, it also became a valuable space for emergent hip-hop and all-ages hardcore shows, and Budnick does a good job of tying in the common spirit of such disparate genres, and how the regulars at the Wetlands welcomed different styles. There are also funny interviews with club staff and members of other bands; Vinny Stigma from New York hardcore act Agnostic Front, in particular, adds color and history with the thickest Brooklyn accent you are likely to hear this side of the stereotype.
The club itself was a narrow space that was often too hot, but which positioned its stages so that bands were part of the crowd, not above it. A downstairs room was for more mellow chilling–and pretty open dope smoking. This self-described “eco-saloon” featured brightly colored and busy murals and a psychedelic VW bus that served as conversation piece and customer information center. Wetlands struggled through the years with police, gentrification, and Block’s selling of the venue in 2000 to a dedicated fan. 9/11 and rising rents both brought the hazy and heady party to an end in 2001. The relentless efforts against night life in the city in general by then Mayor Rudy Giuliani also greased the wheels for the club’s demise, though a non-profit activism center is still operating (www.wetlandspreserve.org).
Your enjoyment of the film may depend on your opinion of the jam bands that were the soul of the club. Despite your tastes, however, the spirit of the club’s ideals, its openness to diverse music, and its acceptance of all who walked in the door, ought to win you over. Though Wetlands borrowed their idea from an earlier decade, they were able to sustain and nourish their own community for a short but sweet (and sweet-leafed) era. The passion of the bands, staff, and management, and sense of community shared with the regulars, is hard to ignore. Wetlands was a place where music, and people, mattered.
In addition to interviews and live performance footage, digital animation of still photos provide a funky, slightly trippy effect, as if mirroring the hazy but pulsing memories of the patrons and staff. This use of animation – now prevalent in advertising – has rarely been done better than here. Each photo becomes a living entrance into a piece of the club’s history. Improvisational music, like activism, leaves its history behind in the hearts of its followers. That ephemeral, but lasting spirit is explored and celebrated in Wetlands Preserved.