ROCK & POP: The whole world's in love with Cerys

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The Independent Culture
Catatonia

Derby Assembly Rooms

Cerys Matthews doesn't like singing the X-Files anthem, "Mulder and Scully". "I hate playing this," she shrills. "It's too high." Unfortunate, that, because the audience have been itching to hear 's signature tune all night, and in typical contrary style, she's made them wait right till the end. Still, from the first guitar twang, 2,000 Derbyshire voices rise up to help her out and a single red rose lands at her feet for her trouble.

Any suggestion that 's meteoric rise to fame could have taken its toll on Matthews's voice is false modesty. She jerks around the stage, note-perfect, lingering on her trademark open vowel-sounds longer than ever. Tonight, as usual, is all about Matthews. From the moment she strides on, flings off her leather jacket and raises her arms aloft for "Storm the Palace", the rabble-rousing opener, the rest of the band are but shadows in the background. "This is our first gig," she shrieks, pogo-ing like an excitable child. She's swigging heartily from a bottle of wine, but it's not alcohol that Matthews is drunk on, just the inebriating joy she gets out of playing live.

Eight years down the line, it's hard to imagine an early , plugging away in poky, third-rate venues. Matthews's stage presence is electric, and so expansive. Even the dull, conference centre-style Assembly Rooms fails to dampen her sparkle. It's far easier to picture her busking on the streets of Cardiff, where she was discovered by guitarist Mark Roberts back in 1990: it surely is this street-corner pedigree which has taught Matthews how to work her audience, which she does with the expertise of a professional stripper.

No corner of the venue is left ignored. She points, shimmies and sings with her entire body, covering the full length of the stage. It's both graceful and coarse, and as she bends her knees and leans towards the crowds in her figure-hugging spangly outfit, there is no doubt that every one of Derby's menfolk will leave tonight feeling rather special.

Then, to a chorus of wolf whistles, she straps on an acoustic guitar and slows things down with a saccharine coated version of "Johnny Come Lately". She's rewarded with another flower, this time a daffodil. "I didn't know you could get daffs in Derby," she quips. Six songs in, things start to warm up, when Matthews throws out another catchy soundbite: "Make hay not war," she pleads, in their forthcoming single "Dead from the Waist Down".

Judging from the tracks from Equally Cursed and Blessed, the as-yet unreleased third album which gets an early airing here, it's clearly a softer, gentler that's in store. Matthews's baby-Bjork voice dominates, and her remarkable vocal elasticity is stretched to the full, from throaty, cracked-up warbling through to breathy crooning. "Watch us cock this up," she laughs as she introduces "Londinium" for the first time to a live audience. Of course they don't, though her lilting anti-London diatribe, with its mention of the poisonous Thames, the sushi bars and the showbiz hugs, is uncomfortably predictable. Likewise her earlier plea to storm the palace and turn it into a bar. But then again, basic, graspable pop culture references are a trademark tactic, which were used to produce their two most successful singles "Mulder and Scully" and "Road Rage". It's what their audience expect.

Whatever the heartfelt sentiment, "Londinium" is greeted with a plea for Matthews to "get her tits out" from a group of Derby beer boys installed on the balcony. With a twinkle in her eye, she chastises them, telling them to shut up and listen to her music. When a guitar fails to appear on cue, she collapses into giggles: "Slick, aren't we," she jokes. Later she asks if anyone's heard the football scores. It's this natural self- confidence which can't fail to win her audience over. She gives as good as she gets, and it's easy to see why she's earned herself the tag "ladette".

"Nearly as good as Garbage," a girl informs her boyfriend on the way out. But for the four red-faced boys who'd come draped in a Welsh flag, there was no contest: they were smitten. And as we file out, an enduring image of Matthews remains. During "She's a Millionaire", with wine bottle dangling, she strutted around like a brazen lush. And when she chants the chorus line, "She's got it, she's on it, she's got it, she's on it," she can only be singing about herself.

: Glasgow Barrowlands (0141 552 4601), tonight; Leeds Town and Country Club (0113 280 0100), Mon; Newcastle University of Northumbria (0191 227 4757), Tues; Manchester Apollo (0161 242 2560), Thurs; Brixton Academy (0171 924 9999), Fri & Sat.

Nicholas Barber returns next week.

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