I arrived at the Emerald Lounge a few minutes before 9:00, but evidently they are keeping alive the tradition of starting late, which happens at pretty much every Emerald Lounge show. Things didn’t really get underway until a little after 9:30 when opening act Cory Branan took the stage. I wasn’t familiar with his music at all and didn’t know just what to expect. He proceeded to do the last thing I had expected from someone opening for Maps & Atlases – play a set of songs accompanied by only an acoustic guitar and a thick southern drawl. Evidently he’s friends with the guys from Lucero, and that’s probably a good reference point. His guitar playing would alternate between very intricate fingerpicked arpeggios and him basically banging the shit out of his guitar. His lyrics were quirky and well written and his songs had strong choruses and interesting narratives. At times he would raise his voice and his southern accent would disappear, only to be replaced with a gravely growl that sounded a bit like Shane MacGowen from The Pogues. In between songs he would offer up witty banter, clever observations, and drunken nonsense. For someone who plays a completely different style of music than the headlining band, he was pretty well received by the crowd. I ended up buying his album and talking to him for a bit, he seems like a pretty cool guy.

Maps & Atlases wasted no time getting on stage and immediately started their set. I’ve listened to their first album and liked it, but I never actually bought or downloaded it, so I wasn’t terribly familiar with their music – just enough to know that I wanted to check them out live. They play a very technical form of indie rock, with roots in classic math rock, jammy prog rock, and Afropop. To compare them to contemporary bands that might be better known, they sound a bit like a cross between Minus The Bear and Vampire Weekend.

I was constantly blown away by their musicianship – these guys can flat-out play! The lead singer played a semi-hollow body guitar and did a lot of two-handed tapping. Their second guitarist also did some tapping, some slide guitar, some chunky rhythm work, and quite frequently switched off and played an analog synth. On a few songs his backing vocals were run through a vocoder, and on one song he used a sampler to loop his guitar and the singer’s vocals to form the backing track. Their bassist was the epitome of a good bassist, in my mind. He kept a fat and steady low end at all times, even when playing lead parts and runs way into the upper register of his bass. He knew how to lay down a funky groove and really propelled the songs forward. But he also knew when to shut up and take a back seat, letting the guitarists have the spotlight while he thumped out root notes. On one song he played a bass drum and the second guitarist played a snare. On a few other songs he directed the audience on when to clap while he sustained an open note. But the real treat of the night was the drummer. He played extremely technical beats, using everything from mounted bongos to synth pads to wood blocks to a tabletop. He did a lot of polyrhythms, and often used a sampler to loop his own playing and build up layer upon layer of percussion. When he wasn’t being flashy and complicated, he banged the shit out of the drums, often drowning out the rest of the band.

Visually the show was impressive as well. The use of stage lights was well executed and really enhanced things. The drummer’s kit was clear and had yellow and orange lights shining through it. The mounted bass drum that the bass player played on one song was also lit funky shades of yellow and orange. All of the amps were mounted on bizarre triangle-shaped stands, which lit up at different times in several different colors. There were several times where the lights all went down and the band performed parts of songs in complete darkness, which added a vaguely spooky flavor to the show.

All in all, this was a show for thinking musicians and music fans. If you’re impressed by technique, then both of these artists would have blown you away. But they both also know that the song itself is key, and neither band fell prey to pointless noodling. No matter how long Maps & Atlases jammed on a riff, soloed, or inserted random bits of other songs, they always came back to strong melodies and solid choruses. No matter how intricate Cory Branan’s guitar playing got, it was always in the service of the unique stories he told with his songs. These are two artists who don’t shy away from technical ability, but rather use it as a vehicle for constructing great songs. In a musical landscape of technically proficient musicians with boring songs and great songwriters who can barely tune their instruments, it’s refreshing to know that there are still people out there who know how to combine great playing with great songwriting.