No Wetlands, No Cry
[Editor’s note: it has been little more than a year since the Wetlands shut its doors for the final time. Seems longer, no? In response to this anniversary NYC music fan Thomas Hallissey wrote this essay to assess the impact of its closing.]
A little after eight o’clock on a Sunday night four young talented improvisationally minded musicians took the stage to a crowd of roughly two dozen onlookers inside the plush blue confines of the upscale B.B. Kings Blues Club on the revitalized 42nd Street. The quartet, known as Brothers Past, dove head first into their layered meandering set of dancehall flavored psychedelic music seemingly unaware that fewer than ten kids were grooving on the parquet floor.
The meager showing of fans at B.B. Kings is not to be blamed on a lack of talent of the band but is instead the result of the close of the Wetlands Preserve a nightclub that for 12 years was the cornerstone of the neo-hippie music scene in New York City. Wetlands was a place where unknown talent got their first shot in the big city and fans were never in short supply. The end of Wetlands has been a tough pill to swallow for musicians and fans alike. No longer is there a central hub for musicians and fans to congregate, no longer is there a venue with a storied history and an inviting down home vibe.
Wetlands, whose talent buyer Jake Szufnarowski, had a philosophy of not just booking bands but developing them, was a catalyst in the success of Blues Traveler, the Disco Biscuits and moe. Every night of the week, sometimes until after dawn, kids of all ages were exposed to an eclectic mix of experimental music. In turn bands were able to showcase their talents in an intimate atmosphere before a relatively large responsive crowd. Ironically, the close of Wetlands has benefited the jamband circuit by affording it the opportunity to re-enter the melting pot that is the New York City music scene and expose themselves to a broader more diverse audience.
The Wetlands Preserve opened in February of 1989 on 161 Hudson Street in TriBeCa. A club, geared primarily toward jam-oriented music, “was a bold idea at the time” and “helped galvanize the scene in New York,” said Jeff Mattson guitarist of the Zen Tricksters who played more shows at Wetlands than any other band. For the twelve years it was opened, “Wetlands was really clearly the home of the jamband scene,” said Mattson. The club featured live music seven days a week with two stages and its own environmental activism center stationed inside of a sticker covered converted 1967 Volkswagen Microbus parked just inside the front door. The Activism Center at Wetlands was an unprecedented and groundbreaking aspect of the nightclub. Patrons could get information and sign petitions on a myriad of environmental and animal rights causes in the corner over by the bus.
The club, which had an official capacity of just over 500 people, emanated a friendly welcoming vibe with the staff often overlooking underage patrons and recreational drug use. “At Wetlands you could be free to enjoy the concert the way you want to,” said Matt Owen a 21-year-old musician. The aura of the club was felt by those graced it’s stage as well. “Wetlands had a cool family environment,” said Tom Hamilton a regular performer at the club.
Wetlands offered bands an opportunity to work their way up from shows in the small downstairs lounge to weekend headlining gigs on the main stage. It was “the perfect stepping stone from a garage band to a professional band,” said Joseph Stadelmann a 22-year-old college student and Wetlands regular. The Wetlands Preserve was so highly regarded by musicians that bands would come back after they had outgrown the club for special occasions and surprise gigs under false names. moe. played several gigs at Wetlands under the moniker Monkeys on Ecstasy at a time when the band could fill a room in city four times the size.
During the last few years that the club was open, the lounge located downstairs offered musical acts during the set breaks on the main stage upstairs. “The lounge was a balls to the wall party. You knew you would be sweatin’, dancin’ and ragin’. You can’t do that anywhere else,” said Tom Hamilton guitarist of Brothers Past. Many bands like Brothers Past and the New Deal played their first New York City gigs in the lounge. “If you sent a tape to Wetlands and they liked it, they would throw you in the lounge,” said Hamilton.
In September of 2001, Wetlands was forced to shut its doors to make way for condominiums, as the corner of Hudson and Laight streets had become desirable real estate. The building was sold to a landlord who did not want a nightclub inhabiting the first floor. Suddenly, a club that had long been a fixture of the New York City music scene, a club that had played host to the likes of Rage Against the Machine, Phish, Pearl Jam and Dave Mathews Band, had vanished.
The question immediately arose. “Who was going to fill that void?” said Jon Dindas, former Wetlands employee and manager of Brothers Past. Over a year later no single club has stepped up to fill the shoes of the historic nightclub. Instead of one club taking Wetlands’ undisputed title of home of psychedelic music in New York City, the scene has splintered off to a multitude of different clubs across the city from the cavernous to the claustrophobic. “The biggest change is [the scene has] become decentralized,” said Mattson. The jamband scene has branched out to venues like the jazz club the Knitting Factory in the Village and B.B. Kings in Times Square, where two former Wetlands Preserve talent buyers currently book shows. “The Wetlands family has spread out all over the city,” said Tom Hamilton guitarist. In August, Brothers Past played a gig at the trendy CREAM near Central Park and Hamilton felt at home since he knew the bouncers from Wetlands days.
Wetlands has been sorely missed by musicians, though it’s close has not been all-bad for the music business. It has forced other rooms across the city to cater to the burgeoning neo-hippie scene. “It gives us more of a chance of getting out to a broader audience,” said Hamilton. People who wouldn’t have gone to Wetlands may be exposed to a jamband at the Knitting Factory or Tobacco Road in Hell’s Kitchen. Instead of just playing one club in New York City, Brothers Past today plays gigs at Tribeca Blues, the venerable Mercury Lounge and the Knitting Factory. We are “attacking the city at different points,” said Hamilton.
Still, the close of the legendary club has been difficult blow for regulars who felt at home within its cozy confines. “For all intents and purposes the close of Wetlands killed the jamband scene,” said Owen. These sentiments are shared by many former Wetlands patrons who said that today they find themselves seeing fewer shows and checking out fewer new bands. “I get the feeling that less people go to shows. The scene is suffering,” said Marci Skolnick DJ at WRHU. Regardless of the act on the bill people would go to Wetlands to check out new music. “Wetlands had a built in crowd, on a Friday or Saturday night people would be there,” said Dindas.
More than a year has passed since the wooden doors of Wetlands closed for the last time and the bus has been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame placed next to Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz. In that time the bands and the fans that follow them have scattered across the city even though some said they wish they could just go back home.
Peter Shapiro, the former owner of the Wetlands Preserve, still ponders the possibility of opening a club at a new location in the city. Though, it’s magic will be tough to duplicate. “There will never be another Wetlands,” said Jon Dindas a former employee. A new central club for the neo-hippie scene would be a welcome addition to the already eclectic New York City nightlife. “If there was another club to fill that gap it would make all the difference in the world,” said Jeff Mattson guitarist.
On a spacious stage flanked by white screens that reflected the technicolor light show Brothers Past locked into a groove that took control of the bones of the kids on the dance floor as the notes soared above Times Square and at least for a moment it didn’t matter if they came from a swank club in midtown, the resurrected Wetlands or an abandoned lot