There’s a ladder in the music game. Some bands shoot up that ladder, skipping multiple rungs and finding wild success without ever doing a whole lot to prove it (Foster The People comes to mind). There are some bands who get hung up on one rung, never quite breaking through to continue the rise. And then there are some bands who just fall off the ladder completely. But some bands do it right: climbing steadily, their popularity and maturity of sound going hand in hand as they climb each rung while solidly proving themselves with every step.
There might not be a band in America right now climbing this ladder with as steady a hand as Maps & Atlases. They started off with a self-recorded EP, moved to the highly respected label Sargent House for one EP, then landed with another extremely esteemed independent West Coast label with Barsuk Records, where they’ve recorded two full-length albums. And that ladder mapped perfectly to the venues in Chicago, where they rose steadily to arrive at a headline gig on a Friday night at Metro. One of the biggest rungs in the city. One of the very best ones too. This was a big show for Maps & Atlases and they lived up to the billing in every way.
Having just released their most anticipated album, Beware and Be Grateful, they could have easily come out and played a ton of those songs. It’s a fantastic album, their most complete work (my review), and it wouldn’t have been a bad thing if they beat us over the head with that material. But they didn’t. Instead they crafted a setlist that weaved songs from Perch Patchwork and You and Me and The Mountain (their first EP Trees, Swallows, Houses was oddly untouched) in with exactly half of Beware and Be Grateful. It was a smart move and they executed it beautifully.
Naturally they started with something from the new album — “Winter” — which was a nice way to ease into the show with a mellow but catchy tune. The most raucous cheers came when they played songs from their stellar EP You and Me and The Mountain. “Artichokes” came early in the show, striking a deep chord with the crowd. “Ted Zancha” came along a few songs later to the same response — these older songs are really beloved amongst the fans. Then they ended the set with two of the best tracks from Perch Patchwork: “Living Decorations” and “Solid Ground.” They really couldn’t have written a better setlist.
What’s really amazing about Maps & Atlases is how richly their sound comes across in the live setting. Their albums can become a little monochromatic at times. But their live show just has this sizzle. It’s a very bold & distinct energy that feels like it leaps at you from the stage. One of the more impressive things is how much finger tapping Dave Davison and Erin Elders actually do. It’s not always apparent while listening to the album, but watching them live is a tapping clinic. Synchronized, harmonized, ever syncopated for that extra weird touch. They really put a new spin on the ‘dual guitar attack’ principle.
Shiraz Dada’s energy is absolutely infectious. He moves the most out of everyone, constantly bouncing around his side of the stage as he plows through some extremely sharp basslines. Then there’s Chris Hainey, who might just be the most impressive musician of the group. He is easily one of the most interesting drummers I’ve ever heard. He has so many chippy little tricks, all these idiosyncrasies to his style that make nearly everything seem like it has an extra sound or two squeezed in there. I found myself drawn to his rhythms, my ears acutely honed into what he was doing. In about 90 minutes of music, he became one of my favorite drummers — especially in the realm of ‘rock’ drumming. All told, this is a stupefyingly technical group of musicians. But their music never gets too wound up in its own machination. It’s always kept light & whimsical thanks to Davison’s peculiar voice and overall breezy song arrangements. This is a band doing something incredibly unique and doing it with amazing precision.
Their encore was a great two song selection. They began with arguably their best and most popular song: “Israeli Caves.” It’s just such a catchy song for being an extremely intricate composition. It’s got this accessible, radio-friendly vibe, which makes it probably the most intelligent song about which that could be said. Then they closed the night with a rare glimpse of improvisation as they welcomed some members of the opening band up for a thick percussion jam during “Daily News.” Everyone on stage except Elders had a percussion instrument in their hands and threw down a primal storm of rhythm. I’m always a sucker for musical improvisation, so this was a special thing for me. I’ve long wondered what Maps & Atlases could do with a little bit of ‘jam’ in their sound. And although this wasn’t the guitar-drenched sound they usually bring, it was a slice of improv where I didn’t expect it — a beautiful touch to end a fantastic show.