The recent craze for animal-themed pub and venue names in Brighton has probably confused taxi drivers unable to remember their Blind Tiger from their Black Dove, White Crow or Mucky Duck. The Jive Monkey is perhaps the most elusive of all. Though located just a guitar pick’s throw from the Pier, it sits on a barely trodden backstreet, its subtle frontage oozing sophistication at the expense of recognition; several people are on their mobiles asking for directions whilst standing almost directly outside.
Events like tonight’s, the debut album launch party for local alt country darlings Sweet Sweet Lies, will hopefully bring the venue out of the shadows. The speakeasy style ground floor cocktail bar offers a wide range of non-mainstream spirits, whereas the upstairs performance room has – less than three months after the venue opened – just been extended in size. This is somewhat fortunate, given that it’s packed to the rafters for tonight’s gig in celebration of ‘The Hare, The Hound & The Tortoise’, a long-player that compiles the band’s three EPs.
With no support act and no fanfare, the sextet crash into ‘The Day I Change’, an apologetic lament for previous drink-sodden behaviour. Like many of their tracks, the spirits of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave and neat Bourbon are distilled into a dark Americana-filtered waltz of poetic contrition and self-denial.
That these songs – as covertly lascivious as they are confessional – sit so well amidst the glitter curtains and velvet paint of what is, essentially, a Gay Village cabaret stage is testament to the camp theatrical seasoning that forms much of the alt element in this particular alt country recipe. From the two singers’ mannerisms and vocalisms, which switch from felt-wristed falsetto to guttural rage across an hour-long set, to the trumpet player’s rave-esque UV ear plug, this is very much a Brighton band playing a Brighton venue to a Brighton crowd.
As is the Brighton way, most present are refugees from elsewhere: front-man Dominic Von Trapp (nee Arnall) comes from the other end of the First Capital Connect (nee Thameslink) trainline, and co-writer Michael Hayes from dourest Glasgow. These are not new arrivals though, and the same goes for the songs. ‘Breathless’ is being performed live “for the first time in three years” tonight, with others almost as sporadic. SSL have been touting many of these songs around Brighton venues for the best part of five years now, but they still feel astringently fresh each time they’re played.
So many tracks get an outing tonight that Von Trapp has to admit, prior to a particularly rollercoasting version of the band’s glorious ‘Capital of Iceland’: “We’ve played all the songs we have bar two, so if you want an encore please shout ‘one more’ after this one.” People duly oblige, and this is just the final in a series of fourth wall breaching interchanges between the band and their friendly invited crowd; dialogue which peaked with a man’s “You sexy motherfuckers” heckle being met with an instant “Dad?”
With a series of glowing album reviews in the national press, SSL will almost certainly be encountering more demanding and studiously cynical crowds than this in the very near future, but those five years at the Brighton gig grindstone and a holster full of talent stand them in good stead. Go get ’em, alt cowboys.
The Jive Monkey, Friday 24th February 2012
Photos by Mike Turnham