If you haven't been to London's newly re-opened Hippodrome it's well worth a visit – though it does feel slightly strange to find Cerys Matthews and her band there among the croupiers and fruit machines.
The Matcham Room, where the former Catatonia front-woman is performing all week, is a snug cabaret bar with round tables and a low stage, tucked away upstairs. Matthews seemed rather taken with the idea that this was the same building – before they turned it into a casino and added a lot of fake chandeliers – where glamorous dwarfs would have jumped into pools amid performing elephants. When she found out she'd be playing in a casino, she said, she thought of Elvis.
It was an eclectic set – and part of the appeal of the evening was that Matthews' choice of songs was obviously a reaction to the venue. After opening with two of her own songs, written ten years apart over the course of a solo career that is now over a decade long, Matthews performed some “classics from the American canon” as she called them, which included Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire, and the traditional “Take a Whiff on Me”, recorded by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly.
The atmosphere was extremely relaxed and Matthews, in a hat and cuffy new-Romantic shirt, was at ease talking to the crowd – a mainly middle-aged audience with a healthy Welsh contingent. If you've ever heard her show on Radio 6 Music you'll know that Matthews is not only a brilliant singer with a great vocal range, but also a quietly amusing natterer. She was genial and receptive to what people wanted to hear, giving a charming, low-key rendition of the Catatonia hit “International Velvet”, and having a stab at a traditional Welsh folk song when it was requested as an encore. When she realised she only knew half the words she got the band back on stage to help her out.
Indeed, the whole evening was very much a band affair, rather than a showcase of Matthews' solo material. She mentioned having played with drummer Mason Neely for years, but this particular set was obviously pretty unrehearsed – something Matthews mentioned a couple of times. This only added to the slightly shambolic, relaxed feel of the evening though, and the musicians – bassist Andy Coughlan and guitarist Jack Ross – were good enough to get away with it. There was a lot of switching between instruments, and Neely was particularly impressive, with some quirky percussion and the odd piano introduction too.
Matthews herself sang beautifully, playing guitar and a banjo she has just had made, and other songs included “Downtown”, Tom Jones' “She's a Lady” and a fun, marching band-style rendition of “Go Tell it on the Mountain”. Given that this stint at the Hippodrome is no doubt partly to promote the new Christmas album she's got out (on sale after the show) it was surprising that she didn't mention it more and played only one song from it – all testament to the laid-back nature of the evening and to Matthews' infectious passion for playing great music, fetched from all eras.