Live | Cerys Matthews (Laugharne)

Dylan Moore travelled to St Martin’s Church, Laugharne to witness a performance from the first lady of Welsh pop, Cerys Matthews.

‘Life is a strange thing,’ says Cerys Matthews as if she’s only just noticed. ‘Singing Ring of Fire in a church, next to the grave of Dylan Thomas.’ Put like that you have to agree with her. ‘It’s been amazing to spend twenty years singing pop songs,’ she also observes, ‘and this is a great pop song’. Another truism. But the reason Cerys is at pains to acknowledge her pop roots is that she’s so much more than that these days. Even the festival programme says ‘her from the radio’; no mention of Catatonia, the band with whom she made her name.

And the show replicates the intimate feel of her Sunday morning programme on 6Music. Cerys talks, reads poetry and prose, and plays music. Only here, live, the music is all hers, at least in terms of performance. But there are – like her favourite Johnny Cash number –many covers too. This is what Cerys is about these days. She’s a musical magpie who loves to share her enthusiasms, with that husky voice and disarming smile.

Live: Cerys Matthews at St Martin’s Church, Laugharne review
Cerys Matthews – ‘It’s been amazing to spend twenty years singing pop songs’

Chief amongst those enthusiasms at the moment is poetry, particularly that of the Celtic nations. Perhaps audience members who were expecting Cerys Matthews only to sing may have taken a while to warm to the generous helpings of Burns and Yeats, as well as a 9th century Irish poem about a hag, but they certainly left with smiles on their faces. It wasn’t as if they weren’t given warning: ‘Be very afraid,’ said Cerys as she took to the stage, ‘look at me with my pile of books.’

There were, inevitably given the setting, numerous readings from Dylan Thomas, including his famous piece about Laugharne itself – ‘one Rolls Royce selling fish and chips’ – and a poem written when he was aged just eighteen, ‘Should Lanterns Shine’. The final lines are among Cerys’ favourites, in all poetry, and here in St Martins, with the ghosts of six centuries around us and her repeated mentions of her own growing sense of mortality, they resonate: ‘The ball I threw while playing in the park / has not yet touched the ground.’

Another feature of her radio show present at this gig is Matthews’ willingness to share her own recent experiences. There’s potential for something of the diva in Cerys’ pronouncement that ‘we’ve just come back from Seville’ (her husband lurks at the back of the stage in a rather dandyish trilby hat; Cerys herself has gone for a pink-ribboned straw number). But one senses an equal joy in her regaling us with tales of the Ryman theatre in Nashville – where she used to live – as with reminiscences of her own childhood (inevitably, she also reads the Mrs Prothero section of ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales, complete with live dinner gong); Cerys Matthews is equally at home ‘passing a guitar around in a bar in Seville’ as she is remembering ‘roller skaters on the Mumbles Mile in the eighties’. The two are conflated in her head because of the bright acrylic flamenco dresses she has witnessed in the build up to Feria. She reads some Hemingway, then sings ‘Sosban Fach’, encouraging us to ‘ole’: this is the sound of a 43-year-old, totally at ease with herself, enjoying the sound of music and words and the central role they play in her life.

When she returns for an encore, respect is evident from both the performer and her public. And given the setting, there is respect for her maker too. ‘This song was written in America in 1872’, she says, ‘but it’s ours’. Cerys’ voice – itself an ambassador for Wales – never sounds more at home than when delivering a hymnal yn Cymraeg and ‘Arglwydd Dyma Fi’ forms a perfect end to the evening. The collection plate can rarely have been so heavy.