Between its birth in 1989 and its closing in 2001, a tiny downtown club called Wetlands served as a vital meeting point for music and activism in New York City. Today marks the DVD release of Wetlands Preserved: The Story of an Activist Rock Club (First Run Features), a documentary directed by Dean Budnick and produced by Peter Shapiro, who also owned the venue during its final years. The hippie-dippie interior (complete with a made-over VW bus that acted as the merch table, which now sits in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) made it a haven for jam bands, though Wetlands also helped usher in the third generation of ska, supported hardcore punk acts and booked hip-hop and Brit-pop (Oasis played their first American show at the club).
The film is a heartfelt rememberance of the scene with interviews and music from the Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam, Blues Traveler and Sublime, among others. “It was certainly not a traditional live music room — big box, perfect sightlines — but it was about interaction,” explains Shapiro, who also produced U2 3D. “A big part of the film talks about the set breaks. We would encourage bands to play two sets with long breaks in the middle so people could hang out with their friends.”
Shapiro also credits Wetlands with the rise of the mid-Nineties jam band scene. “There are a couple of eras for the club, one being the early era, with Blues Traveler, Phish, Spin Doctors, Dave Matthews. The second era came in August ’95 when Jerry Garcia passed away, because that forced a lot of the huge Grateful Dead fanbase to find new music to listen to, and they kind of splintered. People went and found bands in various genres playing off of that, which really led to the birth of the jam band scene, and Wetlands became really the heartbeat, the foundation of that.”
But the history of Wetlands is as much about activism as it is about guitar solos. The club hosted meetings for all manner of organizations, including eco-friendly groups. “I remember hearing about carbon footprints at Wetlands before that term became popular,” says Shapiro. “The people there were green before green was mainstream and cool.”
Of course, the Wetlands (and Wetlands Preserved) wasn’t all saving the world and community vibes. “Dave Matthews tells a story in the movie about being so high that he couldn’t remember how the song he was playing went,” says Shapiro. “So he just stared straight ahead, and everybody loved it.”