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Maps & Atlases Surprise, Play Impromptu Acoustic Show At Mercury Lounge

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I have a confession to make. Last night, the first time in a long time--perhaps for the first time ever--I saw a band without having heard any of their songs. I read no blog posts, visited no MySpace pages, read no tweets. I even had to repeatedly squint at the sign behind the bar (hey, I forgot my glasses) to remember the name of the headliner, a Chicago band called Maps & Atlases. It was great.

Don't get me wrong: I didn't just get turned around on East Houston and find myself in the Mercury Lounge--although I did spend a good fifteen minutes on Delancey thinking it was Houston. I convinced the good people here at Huffington Post to let me cover this concert because I was interested in seeing two bands, one old, one new. Neither of them were Maps & Atlases.

The old band hadn't been a band when I first started listening to them. Laura Stevenson has been playing in New York City for awhile now--in fact, the first song on my iPod by her is a live version of one of her old songs, "The Pretty One," erroneously titled "LivefromCBGBs." Since then, she appears to have picked up a band, called the Cans, on her migration over to the Mercury Lounge, but the main force on stage is still her unbelievable voice. It's like a cross-between Joanna Newsom and Alanis Morisette (in a good way!) but it's really like neither of these two things because it is so original and so versatile and just good.

Yet due to some evil conductor at the sound booth, throughout the set her vocals were tragically quiet and were often overpowered by the accordions, trumpets, and plain old electric guitars backing her up. The fact that the house lights were on and that the band was playing on borrowed instruments due to a fire in their van didn't help much either. If only CBGBs were still around.

Eventually, the band that I had read about, whose MySpace page I had visited and songs I had downloaded, came on. They're called Cults and, as it turns out, they had really only written one song--the ubiquitous, insanely catchy summer pop song "Go Outside"--before they became Internet popular. When they took the stage, the British boys next to me thought they looked like Hanson and my friend Becky thought they sounded like Crash Test Dummies. But no one could really form an opinion before they exited the stage after playing only five songs. They might be good - it's hard to tell. They certainly aren't worth seeing live yet.

As we mulled around, finishing our beers, a transformation was secretly taking place on stage. By the time I realized what had happened, I was already dancing and clapping to the sounds of Maps & Atlases.

The band is from Chicago, not New York, and you can tell: their stage presence is distinctly un-self-aware and their focus is, strangely enough in these quirky times, on just being really, really good at playing their instruments. The drummer, Chris Hainey, seemed most comfortable in time signatures that would turn the stomach of any Motown fan, yet magically he made these odd rhythms just as insanely danceable as any Smokey Robinson song. Both guitarists--the alliterative Erin Elders and Dave Davison, who is also the vocalist--managed to play their guitars in ways I have honestly never seen before, their hands all over the neck of the instrument, tapping out rhythms and pushing the strings like telephone buttons. Shiraz Dada on bass kept the crowd active and clapping. It was the best thing I've seen all summer.

Now I know this is such a clichéd thing to write in a concert review, but much as I marvel, now, at the unbelievable talent that Maps & Atlases display on their most recent release, Perch Patchwork, their virtuosity tends to come off a bit overly complicated on the record. But live, surrounded by the crowd, the complicated feats they managed to pull off both rhythmically and structurally whipped the crowd into the very best of kind of frenzy--the what-will-they-do-next sort of one, where everyone is actually smiling because they're just that good.

Towards the end of the show, as the hour came dangerously close to midnight and the Mercury Lounge's noise curfew crept ever closer, the band cryptically said they'd play a couple more songs then come "play with us." I can't tell if I was sad that this turned out to not be a sexual entendre. What they meant, as it turned out, was that they were going to skirt the noise Nazis by dismantling their drum set and unplugging their amps and literally coming to sit in the middle of the small, plastic cup strewn floor and, well, play with us. The show ended with Dave Davison alone in the center of the room, simultaneously tapping the outside of the guitar while playing the neck like a hand piano, crooning into a crowd of 40 or so new converts.

Nick Sylvester recently interviewed Jennifer Egan about her new novel, Goon Squad, for his new blog, Riff City. The interview is great but the reason I'm bring it up is that there's this beautiful passage where the two of them struggle to describe the difficulty of writing about music accurately--how hard it is to explain just why something is good, and just what that feeling of good, well, feels like. Sylvester claims--rightly so--that Egan seems to have somehow found the right words, to have locked that very ethereal situation into her text. When one of her main characters, Bennie, hears something that really catapults him into a different place, she describes it like this:

"These sensations met with a faculty deeper in Bennie than judgment or even pleasure; they communed directly with his body, whose shivering bursting reply made him dizzy."

This is exactly what it feels like to see Maps & Atlases live. But don't just trust what you read on the Internet - sometimes, it's best to just let yourself be surprised. And then blown away.