There are legendary concert venues such as the Fillmore (East and West) and CBGB whose names elicit a moment in time. Others are known for hosting career-making performances – U2 at Red Rocks, Elton John at the Troubadour.
Then, there’s the Wetlands Preserve whose influence spread far beyond its doors. Over 13 years, the venue nurtured talent while simultaneously working towards making a difference in concertgoers’ everyday lives.
In 1989 Laura Bloch Bourque worked alongside her then husband, Larry Bloch, to bring Wetlands from an idea to a reality at 161 Hudson St. in the Tribeca area of New York. Despite a lack of experience as a club owner, he pursued his vision of promoting concerts and spreading the joy of live music while using the site as a catalyst for grassroots environmental activism. She has compiled the venue’s monthly calendars and Village Voice ads from 1989-2001 and added assorted memorabilia and photos to chronicle Wetlands history in her book, Wetlands NYC History: A Visual Encore. On Saturday December 27 she will be signing books at the Blues Traveler show, which will take place at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY—this is altogether fitting as Blues Traveler was the club’s unofficial “house band” in its early days and The Cap is owned by Peter Shapiro, who purchased Wetlands from Bloch in 1996].
“For a lot of the music people they may have missed the whole environmental activist side,” she said. “You could easily walk in there to the music and not understand that we did this other thing. So, I tried in this book to weave it altogether.”
Bloch Bourque recalled a particular campaign that began at Wetlands. “The biggest one from the early years took two-and-a-half years of protesting at the New York Times to get them to stop killing the last old growth forest in Canada. After about a year, everyone was saying, ‘What are you doing? Why don’t you give up?’ And we’re like, ‘No.’ There was constant protests going on there and the New York Times finally threw in the towel. That felt like true victory to Larry. It was like…‘When you get the New York Times to change…’”
The Wetlands Activism Collective continues to carry out grassroots advocacy. “Adam Weissman still continues all that activist activity. And, because I believe Larry would have done it, I plan to give a buck a book to him for his organization, whatever they want to use it for. I feel like they deserve something because Larry would do that if he was here.”
She added, “I heard from so many people that said, ‘I never would have known how to participate or what to do if I hadn’t walked into Wetlands to see a band.’”
While Wetlands NYC details the daily exploits at one particular location, it ends up presenting a history of the ‘90s music world as well as the birth of what became the jamband scene.
“The booking policy was to try and develop bands rather than just, ‘Who will bring in money tonight?’ If you look at the calendars there are so many interesting stories there. You see Dave Matthews playing on a Monday night…for free. Then, he works his way to Wednesday night and awhile later he gets a Thursday. Then, he’s gonna open for someone on a Saturday that’ll expose him to other people. It was all planned. The bands really appreciated it. They got to develop followings rather than just having a gig.”
Emphasizing that open-minded policy towards booking, Bloch Bourque put together a list of the over 3,700 bands that played at Wetlands. It includes: Phish, Pearl Jam, Bob Weir, Widespread Panic, Umphrey’s McGee, the String Cheese Incident, Gov’t Mule, Midnight Oil, Robert Hunter, Rick Danko, Maceo Parker, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Keller Williams, Ween, Run-DMC, Nils Lofgren, Dispatch, Joan Osborne, G. Love and Special Sauce, Blues Traveler, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Zero, Spin Doctors, Aquarium Rescue Unit with Bruce Hampton, Robert Randolph, Steve Kimock, Donna the Buffalo, Charlie Hunter, DJ Logic, From Good Homes and Biz Markie.
Being band and fan friendly wasn’t a plus for everyone. “Larry was always saying, ‘No, we’re not going to close. If people want to keep playing, we’re gonna stay open.’ There was a lot of frustration for the employees. You’re getting off work at 4 and you end up there ‘til 7.”
Bloch Bourque also recalled how she’d be caught in the middle due to Larry’s belief that DJing deserved as much respect as the live act playing that night.
“I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I used to get when he would do this. He believed so much that DJing was an art and…most clubs at that point would throw on a tape between bands but he was DJing to the crowd. He had a few big shot bands that took the stage in the middle of the long song that he had planned out — he would plan his DJ sets for hours — and he had the song that was on that was supposed to lead into that band getting onstage. And if they got onstage early, he was not going to cut that song off. It didn’t matter if it went three, four more minutes. The bigwigs in the industry would be getting rather pissed off and it would get very uncomfortable. But Larry would say, ‘Hey! They took the stage before the song ends. Too bad.‘”
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