It has to be said that Nat Johnson is a bit of a Sheffield institution. She’s had varying success as a musician; from the initial shambolic Monkey Swallows the Universe gigs to their triumphant rise to national recognition; Nat’s venture into the music world alone; the forming of Nat Johnson and the Figureheads; the side-project musings of Judy Beat and the Becketts. She’s now settled on playing solo once more, albeit with the help of multi-instrumental musicians Katherine Jackson and Hannah Browne. It’d be easy for Nat to roll-out a quasi-greatest hits set from all her past guises, but a respectfully silent audience in this quaint theatre are treated to a mostly fresh set of songs.
The stage is set with a coat stand, a settee, and folk instruments scattered around the floor. It’s a warm and cosy setting which goes hand in hand with Nat’s intimate set. She opens alone with Neighbour of the Year, a song Nat which tells us began as a “wouldn’t it be funny if..” conversation and blossomed into a beautiful track littered with lyrical witticisms. Only a handful of covers are played tonight, but Nat introduces us to little-known work of Connie Converse, an off-kilter ditty of jazz chords and wildlife imagery (which is an ongoing theme all night), later playing a heart-breaking ode to Connie called Lonely in the Dark.
Three songs into the set and a doorbell rings. Tongue firmly placed in cheek, Nat Johnson lets in two guests to her home to help her out on a few tracks. Hannah and Katherine provide the perfect backing for Nat for the remainder of most of the set; from the flute and violin duelling of Laura Veirs’ track Through December, to the delicate harmonies of March, March. Jayson from Sootytern is the next person to arrive at Nat’s door as he provides the baritone vocal on Monkey Swallows the Universe’s Ballad of Breakneck Bride. The set slowly grows from Nat’s solo opening to this full blown folk orchestra; it’s like a cute and wintery Stop Making Sense. The evening ends with a rousing version of the Andrew Sisters’ Christmas Islands. Nat, Hannah and Katherine all share pitch-perfect acapella vocals, complete with a comical but impressive human brass section. Typically modest, Nat leaves the stage bashfully, perhaps still unaware of what a great songwriter and musician she has become.
Earlier, Lancaster’s Sootytern kick started the night with ukuleles, mandolins, synthesisers and bass guitars. “I was nearly killed on the M6 on the way here” quips lead vocalist Jayson Turner, though you wouldn’t know it from the optimism that adorns tonight’s set. Not everything works; the band’s stripped back set sometimes suffers from a lack of percussion that is normally present, and the post-rock ambience doesn’t quite deliver the immensity their recorded material depicts. Highlight of the set is probably opener ‘Fox Hunt’, which doesn’t play victim to the aforementioned issues; a baroque mandolin riff interplays beautifully with Jayson’s tortured lyrics “You’ve never seen the sky / the universe so wide / the energy of light”.