POP / A free woman in London

When Joni Mitchell played for an invitation-only audience, David Robson was there - not that he's gloating, of course
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The last time I saw Joni was Wembley in `82; the last time until last Monday that is. There were several thousand people at Wembley; she had a brilliant band with her and she played a cordless electric guitar and walked up and down a long runway in that vast barn of a place. The guitar was a surprise, so was the way she played it. She wore a red beret as I remember, and she was great.

Last Monday she played in a small function room in a house in Kensington. This time there were a couple of hundred people there. She was about 10 times as far from me as you are from this newspaper as you read. She played an acoustic guitar and a semi-acoustic guitar. She was in brown and she was pretty unforgettable.

Why a house in Kensington? Why a handful of people? For no very dramatic reason. Not terminal career failure; not agoraphobia. Her new album Turbulent Indigo is released; she is not doing a concert tour. She wants to play it to some journalists and other music media types. Simple enough. And yet . . . she played for an hour, from 6.30 to 7.30, 11 songs. Four of them were from Turbulent Indigo. She began with ``Refuge of the Roads'', a song from 1976; she finished with ``Just this Train'' a rather bleaker one from 1973. And in between, she played her newly recorded songs, some as yet unrecorded songs; songs that told stories, acerbic social songs, light funny songs. If the people in the room were seen-it-all music journalists (I don't know if they were), they were not acting blase. They applauded her on to the stage, became more appreciative as she went on. No lighted matches and stomping feet but prolonged, insistent clapping at the end. And an encore.

David Crosby was once quoted as saying that Mitchell had an ego like Napoleon. I can believe it. Up close, you get a sense of what a formidable presence she is; larger, stronger than you had thought. That face, that mouth, those cheekbones are now the features of a handsome woman in middle age, an engaging, witty and somewhat magisterial person. In 20 years' time she will be a remarkable old woman, and still an artist to watch. For what she has been laying out for us these years is a woman's life and the work of an artist always creating. Youth has nothing to do with it.

She played solo on Monday, standing on a little stage as she might have done a quarter of a century ago - her voice still sinuous but lower and richer (those ``Big Yellow Taxi'' high notes are long gone). Hearing her sing ``Sex Kills'' and ``Yvette in English'', I regret not having them on her new album just as she did them, unencumbered.

She talked about Saskatoon, her home town in Canada, about the girlhood daring of crossing a long, dark, creepy bridge across the river with her friend ``Cherokee Louise''; that became a song in 1991. She talked about picking up a newspaper at a supermarket checkout in Vancouver where she found the story for ``The Magdalene Laundries'' on her new album, a macabre tale of unnamed graves dug up under what had been a Catholic institution for women who had committed adultery, borne illegitimate babies or just been striking enough to arouse too much interest among local men. ``That's what you get for reading newspapers,'' she said, ``a thing I try to avoid.''

And she talked about David Crosby who, she said, ``is fading away in a Los Angeles hospital, waiting for a liver transplant. Spare a thought for our David, it will take somebody else's catastrophe to save him.''

She is not a truly popular artist, more the centre of a fairly populous cult. Call them Jonists. Once upon a time you would have thought she was a folk singer but she wasn't quite that. There was never enough easy politics. Even her anthem-like songs - ``Clouds'', ``Woodstock'' - only became anthems when carried by easier voices like Judy Collins and Crosby, Stills and Nash. She may have written ``Woodstock'' the song, but she never made it to Woodstock the event. She got stuck in the traffic, which has always seemed to me thoroughly appropriate.

The last song, before the melancholic encore, was called ``Happiness is the Best Facelift'', which makes you smile. If you're sorry you weren't there on Monday, you have my sympathies.

(Photograph omitted)