Eleventh Dream Day,

The Sea & Cake

Double Door, December 3

With all the attention focused on Chicago’s rock scene these days, it’s ironic that many of the musicians who first lured the major labels here almost a decade ago continue to perform in relative obscurity. Green, Eleventh Dream Day, Naked Raygun, Shrimp Boat, Precious Wax Drippings, and Big Black were among the city’s more notable acts during the 1980s, and the interest they elicited paved the way for the precipitous success now being enjoyed by some of their younger colleagues.

Shrimp Boat was one of the more popular acts on the local club circuit. Their legendary shows at Phyllis’ Musical Inn were invariably packed, and their records generated a buzz well outside the confines of Chicago. They broke up a couple years ago, but neither of the spin-off bands (Sam Prekop’s the Sea and Cake and Ian Schneller’s Falstaff) has rekindled the same devotion. Shrimp Boat’s wide-ranging music was the offspring of four diverse musicians, and each musician was a facet in the band’s collective prism.

Eleventh Dream Day have also fallen on hard times since the late 80s. After several disappointing years in the big leagues signed to Atlantic Records, the band recently returned to their original status as a trio. Their new record, Ursa Major, has been released on the tiny Atavistic label and is difficult to find in most stores. Since some of their live shows in recent years haven’t had the seething intensity that once was the band’s trademark, many have speculated that Eleventh Dream Day were grinding to a halt.

The recent pairing of Eleventh Dream Day and the Sea and Cake at the Double Door provided an opportunity to gauge how much excitement each band is still capable of creating live.

The Sea and Cake took the stage first, delivering an energetic set of mostly new songs that showcased their subtly potent ensemble playing. The group specializes in low-key, jazzy pop tunes that are refreshingly different from the grunge and lo-fi sounds that dominate the current scene. On this outing they brought those understated tunes to life by infusing them with writhing rhythms and ringing guitar interplay. Guitarist Archer Prewitt, who also plays with the Coctails, reeled off some quasi-psychedelic lines on the opening instrumental, signaling that the band have expanded beyond the muted melodiousness of their self-titled debut record. Prewitt, singer-guitarist Prekop, drummer John McEntire, and bassist Eric Claridge created an engaging hour of music made up of crystalline melodies and insinuating grooves. Their music is analogous to the cool jazz of the late 50s and early 60s, which countered the frantic energy of bebop with subtlety and introspection.

Unfortunately, understatement is not the most effective way to win over audiences conditioned to rock’s typical sonic pummeling, as the Sea and Cake discovered during their performance. Although parts of the crowd listened with enthusiasm, many simply talked over the music. The band responded with vibrant renditions of “Jacking the Ball” and “Flat Lay the Water,” and Prekop abandoned his smooth crooning for more energetic singing punctuated by the occasional whoop or yowl. Though the effort was only partially successful, the band’s set proved that Prekop and company have emerged from the shadow of Shrimp Boat with an ingratiatingly unique style.

In contrast, Eleventh Dream Day quickly galvanized the crowd with breathless versions of the hook-filled “After This Time Is Gone” and the chugging “Bearish on High.” Yet the absence of a second guitarist as a foil to Rick Rizzo left an undeniable hole in the sound of a band long known for its inflammatory guitar dueling. Drummer Janet Bean and bassist Doug McCombs worked furiously to fill the vacuum beneath Rizzo’s solos, but his busy, linear playing sounded thin and naked without the usual guitar accompaniment.

By the midpoint of the set, Rizzo’s playing had lurched from energetic to manic, perhaps spurred on by the band’s longtime concert standards like “Tarantula” and “Makin’ Like a Rug.” Rizzo unleashed a series of torrid solos, creating aural fireworks that more than made up for the diminished manpower. On the songs “Orange Moon” and “Sunflower,” the band were as stoked as they’ve been in some time, although their lack of touring betrayed them during some isolated moments of sloppiness and confusion.

Eleventh Dream Day also displayed their versatility. Aided by a violinist and the Sea and Cake’s John McEntire, Bean and the band delivered a lovely version of the acoustic “Flutter” from their new record. They also mustered an appropriately delicate touch on the luminously quiet “Taking Leave” before revving things up during an encore that culminated in a scorched-earth version of “Death of Albert C. Sampson.”

Despite the various setbacks to their careers–and the organizational fragmentation that often signals the death of a band–on this evening both Eleventh Dream Day and the Sea and Cake looked like strong survivors, neither willing to go gentle into that good night.

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