Cerys Matthews, St David's Hall, Cardiff

St David's Hall, Cardiff

Transforming from Chardonnay swilling pop tart to country loving, married, mother-to-be sounds like a leap of faith, but for Cerys Matthews it has been a godsend. Swapping the once obligatory bottle of wine for water, and high-street glamour for understated comfort, Matthews glows with health and happiness, self-consciously pulling down the vest hiding her bump, coyly smiling at the hometown crowd cheering at her feet. Pop's favourite strumpet has grown up.

After spending a decade in the pain and confusion of Catatonia, Matthews quit the band in 2001 and left behind lurid tales of too much booze and too little confidence, of a good-time girl whose good times caught up with her. Drink, drugs and depression eclipsed the innocent wonder within her breathy vocals and the childlike directness of her lyrics, leaving a feeling of wasted talent in their wake. Now Matthews is back with her first solo album, Cockahoop, a gorgeous collection of country coated and folk flecked songs, some borrowed, some new. Slide and steel guitars replace the boisterous and brazen pop of the past and Matthews sounds at ease with herself and her new found sound.

But she starts badly, overwhelmed and obliterated in the darkness of Cardiff's classical music venue, all the delicacy within her voice and words squashed into submission by the soulless environment. Red lights flash upon her and Matthews waits, embarrassed by the enthusiastic cheers and whistles, her position as the world's coolest Welsh woman undiminished by her absence from the charts.

The crowd are here to celebrate Matthews's return and they want to party. A steady stream of handclaps runs through the laid back and desperate Chardonnay, a bitter love letter to the demon drink. But Matthews is here to please herself and sticks to gentle melodies and woozy rhythms, dealing with shouts for Catatonia songs with a weary smile and a sharp aside.

Her high, restrained voice hovers over her producer Bucky Baxter's slide guitar - "I dragged him out of the woods, he dragged me out of the wilderness," she says - and for Welsh lullaby Arglwydd Dyma Fi she is purity personified. The effervescent pop of Caught in the Middle is the closest she comes to her previous incarnation, but it is the bar-room hoedown of Good in Goodbye that has Matthews' hips swinging and her voice turning rough and ready, revealing a hint of the sensual girl within the sensible clothing at last.

· At Concorde 2, Brighton (01273 772770) tonight, then touring.


Betty Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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