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Wetlands Preserved

Director: Dean Budnick

(US DVD: 22 Apr 2008)

The litmus test for any documentary that purports to capture a particular popular music scene is whether that documentary a. stirs memories (you were part of the scene, and it has paid faithful homage); b. catalyzes interest (you’re a scene dilettante and wish to know more based on what you’ve seen) or c. a combination of the two (you weren’t part of the scene, per se, but you know a bit more than the average bear).


Wetlands Preserved, which succeeds admirably on all three fronts, is first about the titular New York rock club, Wetlands Preserve—an icon of TriBeCa throughout the 1990s up through its 2001 closing. But it also covers the nascence of the second generation of jambands: an era of improvisational rock crews that played late night shows, cross-pollinated heavily through their mutual friendships and respect and gave birth to the loosely defined jamband scene that’s flourished from the early ‘90s up through the present.


Those heady bands—your DMBs, Phishes, Blues Travelers, Gov’t Mules, Spin Doctors, Widespread Panics, moes and many others—found each other, their fans found each other, and each band’s musicians have both a Wetlands memory and, as demonstrated by the documentary interviews, a fondness for what the place provided to groovy scenesters looking, at the very least, for a post-Grateful Dead fix. In the city where many American music forms—rock music forms, especially—either launched or flowered, gooey-eyed jambanding was no exception, and Wetlands was like no other New York club before or since. Its environmental activism arm—which still exists today despite the club’s closing in 2001—was but one part of what made it unique.


Watching director Dean Budnick’s studious and lovingly assembled documentary in its DVD form, I felt some of the same disappointment I had upon seeing the film in theatrical release: a want for more show and less tell. That is, more of the music that defined the Wetlands scene and fewer talking heads telling me how cool and occasionally illegal and somewhat haphazard it all was.


Granted, these are gentle criticisms: there isn’t a single interviewee who doesn’t belong or who doesn’t add to the Wetlands legend in some way, and the film’s soundtrack is peppered with era-evoking music (the early, pre-“Crash” version of Dave Matthews Band’s “Tripping Billies”, Blues Traveler blowing up 20-minute versions of their ancient, pre-“Run Around”, pre-radio dominance material, and moe. burning through its concert staple “Rebubula” to name a few). But after its engaging first hour, I wanted the documentary to speed up and end already so I could get to the extras, which musically include three all-time gems from the late-era Wetlands chronology: Strangefolk on New Year’s Eve in 1997, the John Popper-led supergroup Frogwings in 1999, and the singular event the documentary keeps returning to as a “one last blast” touchstone: a long, mind-expanding show on 10 September 2001, that began as a DJ Logic and Friends gig and brought in a galaxy of Wetlands-familiar stars to jam ‘til the wee hours.


The 10 September night is a focus for a reason—it was the last Wetlands gig that felt like a real Wetlands gig, and it has a special resonance now because at the time, as the film explains, Wetlands wasn’t expected to close for a few more days—and was gearing up for a long-awaited pair of headlining shows by Bob Weir and RatDog as its official closing bells. But the world changed the next morning, bringing all of New York to a standstill, and Budnick does a fine job of arriving at that seminal moment, the lead-up full of portent, in the context of the club’s own history. (The club did officially close a few weeks later with a hastily organized set from Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who had come to town, according to this film, after his daughter’s boyfriend died in the 9/11 attacks.)


For its occasional drags, the film’s balance is ultimately kind, starting with the lengthy, insightful interviews with Larry Bloch and Peter Shapiro, the club’s two owners, and a demonstration, through interviews and events of the era, of how each presided over a different vibe in the Wetlands scene (Bloch’s idealist and ‘60s-ish, Shapiro’s a bit less so and decidedly ‘90s) while remaining inextricably linked in mission and purpose.


Around their central interviews, Wetlands Preserved serves up a wondrous collection of musicians all with touching and/or hilarious memories—members of Gov’t Mule, the Allman Brothers, moe., Guster, Phish, Blues Traveler, the Roots, Soulive, Sublime, Panic, all who made up what the Dead’s Bob Weir describes as a “simmering cauldron of jamband activity”—and club employees, bartenders, talent buyers and various unsavory characters all on hand to do the place justice and, in some cases, suggest their hearts and minds never quite left its smoke-filled, psychedelic-painted confines.


Journalists and other scene chroniclers fill in the rest of the gaps, including the great Richard Gehr, who’s done some of the most eloquent writing out there on jambands and the jam scene–especially about Phish—over the past two decades. (And speaking of journalists, in the interests of full disclosure, I am an occasional contributor to Relix, where Budnick is a senior editor.)


Beyond that, you can only do so much in a 90-minute documentary, which means choosing more reverential history and only briefly touching on other facets of the club, including the spilled-over politics of Giuliani’s New York, gentrification and the exile of downtown NYC music temples (a side which surely everybody knows), and the fact that the Wetlands also had an important—if not always lucrative—scene for ska, hardcore, punk and all-ages shows (a side which a lot of people do not know).


That brief foray includes fleeting memories of the Murder Junkies playing there, Fishbone being the only band around that could bridge the jam and punk audiences, and plenty of hilarious “yous guys” memories from Jimmy G and Vinnie Stigma, respectively of Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front, whose interviews provide a refreshing, non-jamband contrast. To that end, Budnick might have done with a few more interviews outside the scene—some local tenants who initially loathed and grew to appreciate Wetlands pop up, but beyond that there’s only Village Voice gossip scribe Michael Musto, who dismisses (albeit respectfully) the whole deal as not really his thing.


Ultimately, Wetlands Preserved‘s greatest strength is also its noble failure: it leaves an engaged viewer wanting more. Me, I would have loved more can’t-get-this-anywhere else anecdotes, such as how the causehead atmosphere that would emerge from its environmentalist bent was a byproduct that led to, say, New York Times scribe Neil Strauss standing under a banner that trashed the New York Times for some infraction du jour. Or how about more on the communal atmosphere from fans and regulars, such as how Wetlands in the early days could double as a crash pad for the too-stoned—and that the bartenders were actually reminded to wake up the folks passed out in the lounge before the next shift began its duties.


That’s the kind of stuff that, along with the music—and always, intensely, lovingly, the music—gives the Wetlands its lingering memory.  What Wetlands Preserved provides has staying power as an excellent music documentary.

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