The live solo debut from Interpol frontman Paul Banks -- nom de tune Julian Plenti -- Friday night at New York City's Guggenheim Museum was a highfalutin mind-bender: Where else can 200 dapper folks stand beneath a dizzying Frank Lloyd Wright-designed rotunda, hear one of rock's chicest stars unleash brooding new tunes, and examine the brushstrokes of paintings from Vasily Kandinsky's Improvisations period?
New Yorkers dressed for the unique occasion, the second of the museum's "It Came From Brooklyn" series, also featuring comedian Eugene Mirman and multiple book and poetry readings, for good measure. Ticket holders and guest list VIPs arrived decked out in suits and gowns, including Banks' Interpol bandmate Carlos D, model Helena Christensen, Björn Yttling of Peter, Bjorn, and John, and Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, who browsed the colorful and vibrant artwork and mingled before the show.
It was an en vogue indie rock gala of sorts -- and Banks' soundtrack was just that: cool and arty, catchy and confident, with a sinister undertone.
On tracks like "Games for Days," "Fun That We Have," and "Only If You Run," Banks' three-piece band paired distant, post-punk guitars with Banks' reedy and robotic vocals and obscure lyrics about his emotions (sound familiar?). But here the music is a bit colder and more brooding that Interpol's, and the new tunes lack the surging noise and guitar feedback.
On songs like "On the Esplanade," the songwriting, though ambient and flowing, was the star with guitar riffs intertwining in crisp notes as a string trio added layers of harmony. Others -- like "No Chance of Survival" -- had meandering intros and outros, and "Skyscraper" was mostly an orchestral instrumental, with Banks muttering the song's title just a few times.
The same formula was applied to the band's cover of America's 1972 hit "A Horse with No Name," which transformed into a lengthy jam with jazzy riffs and rolling drums -- sounding like the Grateful Dead rocking out at the bottom of a crevasse.
The crowd approved, rooting on the frenetic solos from the guitarist (who delivered the night's tackiest moment by sporting a black, cut-off David Lee Roth t-shirt). One fan in a corduroy blazer up front, hooting approvingly throughout the show and going so far as to declare, "Paul Banks is god!" might even have scored himself a gig. "Wow, we should pay you," Banks said between songs. "You should come on tour with us!" (Plenti's debut U.S. outing kicks off proper-like Nov. 16 at Seattle's Chop Suey).
Julian Plenti isn't exactly a new gig for Banks -- it's a revived one. The rocker performed under the moniker in the late 90s/early 00s, just before Interpol's breakout sidelined all other projects. But now that Interpol's members have satisfied their "side-project" urges -- Carlos D's film career, drummer Sam Fogarino's band Magnetic Morning -- and are coming together to find that "vital" sound, it's now or never for Banks' Plenti before another Interpol album push takes focus.
Whether it's Plenti or Interpol, Banks emits a sophisticated, moody downtown cool in both song and presence. And, really, who would expect anything less from a guy who's on a first name basis with one of the world's most prestigious, forward-thinking museums: "Thanks for coming out everyone," Banks said before the final song, a cover of the Pixies' b-side "Into the White." "First off, I'd really like to thank the Gooooooggggggg!"
Julian Plenti setlist:
Fly As You Might
Girl On The Sporting News
Fun that We Have
Horse with No Name (America cover)
No Chance Of Survival
On The Esplanade
Only If You Run
Into The White (Pixies cover)