Chances are, unless you noticed AUM Fidelity's recent re-release of the '89 album Speckly, Shrimp Boat may be a mystery to you. The band shone brightly during the late '80s and early '90s on Chicago's art rock scene, before drifting apart in '93. And there they might have stayed, a more or less forgotten footnote in history, had it not been for a chance encounter with AUM's helmsman, Steven Joerg, and his passionate and incautious optimism for their music.
Joerg first came across Shrimp Boat in '90, when he was working out of Hoboken, New York as a promo man for Bar/None Records and heard Speckly playing in the office. He was hooked, bigtime and immediately, and when he set up AUM in '97, one of his principal inspirations was the hope, eventually, of releasing a collection like Something Grand. It's been eight years in the labour-of-love making, and what a magnificent collection it is: four CDs spanning the years '87-'93, immaculately mastered from a diverse collection of studio recordings, radio broadcasts and DAT tapes taken from the sound desk at gigs mainly in and around Chicago, all of it previously unreleased, and accompanied by a scrupulously researched and vividly illustrated fifty-page users' manual (to call it a booklet would be to belittle it).
But what, you may be asking, is all the fuss about? And what has an art rock band got to do with jazz anyway? Well, although it was supported primarily by Chicago's art rock scene, Shrimp Boat was much more than an art rock band. The group mixed the riffs with equal measures of bluegrass, jazz and country, spiced with a little blues and Latin music. Imagine the Band crossed with Archie Shepp, crossed with Flatt & Scruggs and Hank Williams Sr., crossed with Mark Twain and Henry David Thoreau, crossed with a Zen clown... and then you're getting close. Shrimp Boat may have grown out of what bassist Eric Claridge recalls as the "dirty, cheap, in-your-face reality" of mid-'80s southside Chicago, but its music extended far beyond the city limits to embrace the folk roots of pretty much the entire North American continenta magical miscegenation, prairie-wide and infinitely enduring.
Shrimp Boat also created songshundreds of themof such character and luminescence as to deserve their own chapter in the Great American Songbook. Only three tunes here are covers: the limpidly beautiful instrumental "I Loves You, Porgy" and the Carter Family's "You Are My Flower" and "Hello Stranger." Some of the materiallike "I Don't Mind The Bums" and "When My Hand Is On The Wheel"reflects the gritty, working man, mean streets city these musicians found themselves in. Some of it ridicules the politics of Reaganomics"Ollie's Song" is a twelve-minute studio collage featuring Lt. Col. Oliver North's testimony to the '87 Congressional hearings, a masterpiece of sophistry, omission, and evasion which is simultaneously hilarious and outrageous.
But the majority of the defining works in the Shrimp Boat canon consists of mutant hoedowns, out there reels and off-planet circle dances; footstomping, infectious, artless, surreal and beyond reason, combining the wisdom of the ancients with the intrepid naivety of youth, rural and Arcadian rather than urban, straightedged and shiny.
Worth stretching your listening parameters for, and worth its own weight in Ming period porcelain, Something Grand is less a box set and more a time capsule, taking us to a time and place we never knew before and very nearly missed forever, bringing it to life and filling us with knowledge and wonder. It will put a song on your lips, a smile on your face, and give you a new lust for life. Just what the doctor ordered.
Track Listing: Rocks Are Oil; Born In A Sour; Bumble Bees; Collecting Me; Only Making Fools; Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy; Mimi; Sourwood Mountain; Melon Song; Pillars Pond; Can You Spare Some Change; I Can't Wait I Cannot; Married In A Fever; Welcome To The Way It Is; Basin Slip; Ollie's Song; 65; Hey Buddy, What's Wrong; The Light Between Your Knees; Watched Pot; Heart Of The City; London Dew; Wonderful Wonderful; Warzone; You Are My Flower; Sanchez River; Charm Lost; How Sweet She Was; Anna E; Medea Rising; She Ra; Kickball; Fuzzy Tremelo; Limerick Dub; Honeyside; Those Hookers; Truck; Steam; Motorcade; Slave Reel; Shoes; Well, I Love My Baby; I Don't Mind The Bums; Weeping Into A Pond; Shrimpcore; I Loves You, Porgy; When My Hand Is On The Wheel; Drought Of '43; Columbo; Mudpin; The Sultan's Eyes; 44; As A Salt Lick Block; Beanfield; Boots Of Spanish Candy; Medullary Pinata; Brown-Eyed Western Radio; Greek Song; Early Settlers; Hello Stranger; Here Comes Your Ride; Snowcloud; Western Plains; Seen This Mexico; Those Were The Days; /// !!! ///; Man Alive (Reprise); Intro To Man Alive.
Personnel: Ian Schneller, bass, accordion, guitar, vocal, percussion, slide guitar, whistle, drums, tape manipulation, trumpet, wind, keyboards, everything, organ, cello, trumpet, synthesizer, electric upright bass, electric ukelele, violin; Sam Prekop, vocal, guitar, lead vocal, percussion, upright bass, kisses, pod bass, bass kalimba, bass, cello; David Kroll, banjo, bass, tenor sax, vocal, percussion, guitar; Eric Schneller/Eric Claridge, drums, vocal, bass, telephoned vocal, maracas; Brad Wood, bass, drums, soprano sax, percussion, piano, vocal; Joe Vajarsky, tenor sax; Tom Jasek, drums; Young Koo, sitting in.
I love jazz because it is both challenging and exhilarating, and the endeavor of improvisation is the highest form of art.
I met so many great musicians--including my two earliest heroes, Maynard Ferguson and Dizzy Gillespie--by attending concerts
and being willing to treat them with the respect they deserve.
The best show I ever attended was the Pat Metheny/Ornette Coleman Song X concert at Cornell University.
The first jazz record I bought was an RCA compilation by Dizzy Gillespie.
My advice to new listeners is to not be afraid to listen to something because you're not familiar with the artists or the band or
the genre or anything - this is music that is best experienced through discovery.