THERE’S no denying pre-Christmas is a primal time of year with constant personal battles between lightness, darkness and hibernation.
What better time to cast a long bright shadow through the dark cold days with a shining song or two?
At the Ironworks in Inverness on Monday, ex-Catatonia singer Cerys Matthews flung us a Christmas wreath of songs that looped around the world, taking in Scotland, Wales, ‘Dustbowl Troubadour’ Woody Guthrie’s America and some favourite carols to transport us to the Middle East.
All we had to do back was listen and sing along in the right places.
"Is that as loud as you can sing, Inverness?" Cerys teased four songs in. And sure enough, we did have a bit more volume in us.
"I want you to be a broken record for me," Cerys asked a little later, and we were pretty good at that too.
By then you’d noticed that the gig billed as Cerys By Candlelight could have done with a few more than the twinkling tealights at the front of the stage.
Also that even in the four songs sung, the quirky BBC 6 presenter had already transported you by the power of song from bloody Scotland (Cerys: "Your songs are the best ones of all for goriness and tragedy") to Wales (Cerys: Anyone in from Merthyr?") and on to Woody Guthrie’s Who’s Gonna To Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet, his chirpy-sounding version of doomy Scots standard The Lass Of Roch Royal.
Dressed in a red velvet jacket, red scarf, jaunty hat, black leather trousers and heels, Cerys played guitar and a homemade banjo –"made in North Carolina, but it doesn’t like touring much".
It’s not every singer who can do a mean kazoo solo, but Cerys can – sometimes even without the aid of a kazoo, as she demonstrated.
Her voice is usually high, clear and almost childishly pure-sounding, until the naughty-substance song sung by Woody Guthrie Take A Whiff On Me revealed a thrilling almost Elvisy deep tone hiding in the low notes.
For Catatonia fans there was just one song, Johnny Come Lately which Cerys told us, she’d had to practise as she’d last sung it about 13 years ago.
And as promised, in the pre-show publicity, there were stories – free with almost every song.
Too embarrassed to share her Scottish accent, Cerys still gave us both the man and woman voices in her reading of Robert Burns The Cares Of Love. Then before singing Ca’ The Yowes, Cerys created her own imaginative contribution to man-woman relations by devising an inspiring alternative to "darling" by calling her manager-husband "ye vile warlock". Must try that one ...
Talking of the ghosts of decapitated colonels, as you do, Cerys pointed out that she’d asked the Ironworks if they had a ghost. A bit disappointed on hearing that they didn’t, she told us: "So if anyone fancies it post-death, this would be a place where you’d be really welcome."
More unexpected moments came with one bizarre heckle which Cerys dealt with perfectly.
"This one’s for you," she said reproachfully, before launching into Patsy Cline’s Crazy, complete with all the country trimmings her versatile voice could provide.
As the night drew to closing, with the help of handy lyric sheets we sang along for carols Ding Dong Merrily On High, Deck The Halls, Go Tell It On The Mountain and Jingle Bells – where Cerys divided us in sections like a panto crowd.
Then it was back to Wales for a dramatised extract Cerys read from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas In Wales, complete with help from audience members Mike and Mark on percussion as fire engine and dinner gong. The obedient crowd miaowed like temperamental cats.
One final Welsh song, then Cerys was welcomed back for an encore.
She chose Johnny Cash’s Ring Of Fire which for once – with Cerys’s voice ringing out on the lines "I fell for you like a child/ Oh, but the fire went wild" – hit home as one of the darkest songs to love ever written.
But thanks to her subtle plug, at least you knew there was Cerys’s festive radio show to look forward to. And it looked as if the throng around the merchandise stall buying her festive album were picking up a lasting reminder to help light their way to Christmas.