By and large music history is told through recordings–but as anyone who regularly goes to shows knows, recordings can’t always tell the whole tale. Chicago’s Shrimp Boat, the quintessential School of the Art Institute band, were around for nearly a decade, 1985 to 1993, and released three studio albums. But today they’re mentioned as a footnote in the story of the Sea and Cake when they’re mentioned at all. The Sea and Cake’s Sam Prekop learned how to play music in Shrimp Boat; the group’s lineup also included Sea and Cake bassist Eric Claridge, his brother Ian Schneller, the luthier who runs Specimen Products in Humboldt Park, and drummer Brad Wood, who’d go on to fame as Liz Phair’s Svengali.

Shrimp Boat’s studio albums were solid, filled with the kind of quirky, genre-spanning art pop that dominated the band’s deep repertoire, but they never came close to approximating the party that was a Shrimp Boat show. At the band’s de facto home, Wicker Park’s tiny Phyllis’ Musical Inn, the group would often play sets of up to three hours where casual experimentation–from free jazz freak-outs to cacophonous faux-hillbilly breakdowns–was embraced by the crowd with as much enthusiasm as their more structured pop tunes. They never took themselves too seriously and they could be funny as hell. One of their longest-running gags was to invite fan Young Koo to “sit in”; Koo would literally sit onstage while the band played, flipping through a magazine or snacking on a bag of potato chips.

This summer AUM Fidelity, an independent New York label that specializes in the kind of ecstatic free jazz made by the likes of David S. Ware and William Parker, released Something Grand, a sprawling, beautifully packaged set of three CDs (or four, if you get one of the first 2,000 copies pressed) of rare Shrimp Boat material, nearly all of it previously unreleased. Label owner Steven Joerg, who grew up in the Chicago area, never missed Shrimp Boat gigs when he was home to visit. The set certainly captures the band’s broad range better than its albums–1989’s self-released Speckly (now out of print), 1991’s Duende (Bar/None), and 1993’s Cavale (Bar/None)–but it still fails to convey their importance to Chicago. I’m not sure any recording could do that.

Context is such a crucial element to critical understanding, and it’s especially key here. Shrimp Boat’s influence can’t be judged on the usual scale. They didn’t spawn a flock of imitators; in fact, to my knowledge they didn’t spawn even one. They had a small, hard-core local following and won only isolated critical acclaim outside of the city–CMJ, then under the direction of future Spin editor Craig Marks, once called them the best band on the planet. But their fearless dabbling had the effect of educating Chicago audiences, paving the way for the local music renaissance that’s still going strong today. Chicago’s open-minded free jazz, post-rock, and even alt-country scenes owe their existence in part to Shrimp Boat.

When I inadvertently walked into an early Shrimp Boat gig circa 1987, I thought they played some of the most annoyingly precious, inept music I’d ever heard. I avoided them for a while after that, but I had to admit that they were onto something when Speckly was released. Recording with Wood, who would join the band soon after, the band ran dissonant Appalachian folk elements over clunky, jerky rhythms. Prekop stumbled into his melodies as if by mistake, and compared to the breathy stuff he does with the Sea and Cake, his singing was earthy and garrulous. Claridge was playing drums then, and occasionally bassist David Kroll blew some tenor sax that Reader critic Renaldo Migaldi compared to the sound of a Pribilof seal. Schneller, a meatier guitarist than Prekop has played with since, also sang, and his piercing upper register could be as trying as Kroll’s sax honks.

Wood’s presence galvanized the band on Duende. The performances were tighter, the melodies sharper, the songs stronger, and the band extended its reach with vehicles for free-jazz blowing (Wood was also a fine soprano saxophonist), blue-eyed soul, and terse, straight-up rock ‘n’ roll. Tension with Schneller sent Wood packing, but not before he’d played drums on Cavale, Shrimp Boat’s most extroverted and polished effort. By that point Kroll had left the band to focus on painting; Claridge rejoined on bass and the group brought in a full-time saxophonist, Joe Vajarsky. The interplay between Schneller, who liked to rock, and Prekop, who liked to drift, was perfect yin and yang. The various nonrock ingredients were so well integrated it became impossible to single out individual songs as idiomatic exercises.

In their last few years Shrimp Boat introduced one great song after another at gigs; it seemed only a matter of time before the world caught on. A tour was planned after Cavale, and Wood was hastily replaced with drummer Tom Jasek–technically skilled, but way too busy for Shrimp Boat. The band fell apart six months later. “I was totally thinking that we were moving forward without compromise,” says Schneller in the liner notes to Something Grand. “I thought Tom was a great drummer for us….Sam and Eric must have been having problems, but they never said a thing to me. Shrimp Boat was the most beautiful musical collaboration I have ever experienced. I guess eight years was a good run, but I will always be baffled as to what happened at the end. I still feel a great deal of pain when I think about it.”

By then Ken Vandermark, Tortoise, and the Handsome Family were starting to make some noise, each exploring a path Shrimp Boat had set foot on and playing for an audience that had been at least partly weaned on them.

Something Grand was culled from more than 400 hours of recordings, including live shows, four-track practice tapes, and a passel of 16-track stuff from Wood’s old studio, Idful. It’s a fine complement to the studio albums, filling in the evolutionary gaps with bits of electronic fuckery, jazz workouts (among them the Sonny Rollins vehicle “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” a staple of Shrimp Boat’s live set), and even an excursion into dub. But to the uninitiated it may seem excessive–in fact, no other word can describe the likes of “Ollie’s Song,” a 12-minute train wreck built around Oliver North’s Iran-Contra testimony. The 54-page booklet includes an oral history that traces the band’s development and dissolution; what’s missing is a section about where Shrimp Boat fit into the bigger picture. I turned down a request to do liner notes, thinking the set was probably something I’d want to write about in the paper, so consider this column an addendum.

The End of the Fireside as We Know It

Last Sunday MP Shows, which books the Fireside Bowl and the Bottom Lounge, removed all future Fireside shows from its Web site. According to Greg Sharp, drummer in the local band ZZZZ and a bartender at the Fireside for four years, owner Jim Lapinski informed MP honcho Brian Peterson (who declined to comment) on Friday that the place would revert to a full-time bowling alley at the end of August. Peterson scrapped the rest of the month’s bookings along with September and October shows; he’s finding new venues for some of them. The change wasn’t entirely unexpected: Lapinski recently resurfaced lanes and brought in new used bowling equipment; audience capacity and the stage were halved in July. Lapinksi says he told Peterson not to book a full slate of entertainment into the next month. An announcement at www.firesidebowl.com says the Fireside will continue to have live entertainment, and that bands interested in playing can e-mail booking@firesidebowl.com. Lapinski clarifies that music will be programmed sporadically–perhaps two or three shows a month–and all shows will be 21 and over.

Bob Mehr is on vacation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dani K..