Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Wetlands Preserve Preserved

There was an interesting time in the 1990’s when elements of rock and jazz were reaching towards each other through the jam band movement. Rock bands like Phish and Widespread Panic, inspired by forerunners like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, were exploring similar musical territory as were jazz jammers like MMW and Soulive. More than any other venue, the Wetlands Preserve incubated the rock side of the jam band scene and celebrated its hippy roots. The life and times of the club are chronicled in Dean Budnick’s entertaining new documentary Wetlands Preserved (trailer here), opening in New York this Friday.

The Wetlands Preserve was the unlikely brainchild of sixties holdout Larry Bloch. He had no prior nightclub experience, but envisioned a unique venue in which the club would support a center for political activism as a given cost of doing business. During the Tribeca club’s life, from 1989 to its closing soon after September 11th, the Wetlands booked a number of acts poised to explode, including Blues Traveler, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Spin Doctors, and Hootie and the Blowfish. To his regret, Bloch never did book the Dead—the band that inspired his club—but Robert Hunter played their final night, which was almost close enough.

There is some great music to be heard in Preserved, thanks to live performances recorded in the club from artists including Matthews, Blues Traveler, Robert Randolph, and Ben Harper. Together with some animation appropriate to the club’s spirit, it is definitely the reason to see the documentary.

However, the behind the scenes stories of Wetlands are also surprisingly entertaining—some even laugh out loud funny. We learn that Bloch’s green sensibilities insisted the club only use paper straws, not plastic, which according to his ex-wife worked about as well as you would expect. Many of the employees have great anecdotes too, like a bar worker who started on the night an uncharacteristically hardcore band played. (The story depends on his expressions and it is a tad scatological, so let’s save it for the film.)

(As for the politics of Wetlands, they tended to be a juvenile mix of environmental and anti-corporate street theater. Frankly, the coordinator of their activism center comes across as a terrible on-camera spokesman, so it is easy to tune out his clichéd rhetoric.)

The music is indeed what the club did best, and it is the best part of Budnick’s film. In addition to improvised rock, Wetlands also booked ska, hip-hop, hardcore, and jam-based jazz. For instance, jazz artists like Charlie Hunter and Soulive played the club. Although these artists are not represented on Preserved’s soundtrack, Jazz listeners will find much of interest in the film, including interviews with John Medeski, Soulive’s Eric Krasno, and briefly Branford Marsalis (who should know something about hippy music having toured with the Dead).

Bloch deserves a lot of credit for creating a great venue and dealing with the City’s red tape and regulations (one amusing sequence pokes fun at the club’s “legal” maximum occupancy). Budnick’s documentary collects some cool grooves and real laughs in a film that should appeal to those of us who went to school during the Wetlands years and associate vivid memories with that music. It opens in New York this Friday at the Cinema Village.