Ana Egge may be a name known to relatively few people, but she’s now released no fewer than ten albums since her debut back in 1997. During that period she’s also managed to collaborate with the Stray Birds (Pensylvania’s finest acoustic roots trio) and Danish folk rockers, The Sentimentals, as well as recording with the likes of Steve Earle and Ron Sexsmith. Over on these shores for the first time in five years to help promote her latest release ‘White Tiger’ (which was given 8/10 when AUK reviewed it here) Egge nevertheless seems to fit effortlessly into the folksy, warm environment of the Green Note.
Around seven songs from the latest record feature tonight, starting with ‘Be With You,’ Egge’s voice at once warm, gentle and seductive – with something of an ethereal quality to it. What immediately separates this performance from so many other singer-songwriters in the Americana genre is the presence of Alec Spiegelman, her sometime producer and co-writer but – crucially in a live setting – providing accompaniment to her singing and guitar playing on bass clarinet and keys. The use of the clarinet provides Egge with a definite USP and it soon becomes apparent why she now considers Spiegelman to be an indispensable part of her support network in the absence of a full band. A relationship around two years in the making – apparently a cello playing friend of Ana Egge’s who couldn’t make a run of shows said she knew a bass clarinet player – and while Egge initially wondered what purpose this would serve it’s now more the case that she can’t imagine a time when he wouldn’t be a part of her set up. This is amply demonstrated on numbers like ‘Bully of New York,’ with the rich mellow sound of the clarinet akin to having a baritone as singing companion.
‘White Tiger,’ the title track of her latest album, is the centrepiece of the evening’s performance. It’s a folk ballad which Egge considers to be a bit of spiritual cheerleading for a girlfriend she knew who was going through a difficult time and the tiger as metaphor for life’s difficulties is a clever conceit, without losing any sense of empathy for the person who’s the subject matter of the song. Meanwhile, ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ – far from being a cover of the Mötley Crüe tune of the same name – is instead a celebration of Egge’s freewheeling days when she first moved to New York City, cleverly referencing Lou Reed with its line, “New York City was the place to be/Waiting on my man, waiting on sweet Jane.” This song captures the excitement she felt at moving to the Big Apple, while the aforementioned ‘Bully of New York’ is another song about her home city, one which demonstrates her bewitching talent as a story teller – a tale of how Egge hitched a ride while ambling through Central Park, and which led to more than she bargained for – the park ranger relating how his unsocial hours had led to marital breakdown, while he was also simultaneously unpopular with children for closing the park gates – the self-described bully of the song title.
Although most of the hour long performance is to showcase the new album, one of the standout tracks from the 2011 Steve Earle produced ‘Bad Blood’ album, ‘Hole In Your Halo,’ is next up. An emotionally raw number about dealing with family members struggling with mental illness it leads Egge, pre-song, to speculate on how US mental health provision compares negatively to its UK equivalent (a subject worthy of a conversation in its own right). Her somewhat unconventional upbringing in a small farmhouse on the plains of North Dakota, the second of four daughters, makes for another interesting interlude and nicely prefaces the song, ‘Motorcycle,’ the inspiration for which is the way her father taught her to ride a motorbike when she was 5 year old, the joyous “let’s take a ride” refrain at the heart of the song. By contrast, ‘Dreamer’ is more subdued while there’s a real sense of yearning in ‘Let the Light In.’
Saving perhaps the best to last are the three songs at the end of her set, starting with ‘Last Ride’ with Anais Mitchell providing vocal support on this song. Penultimate number ‘We Are One,’ a song she wrote about a year ago, has garnered over 2 million YouTube views to date and it isn’t hard to see why. An emotionally engaging number, it demonstrates the humanity at the heart of Ana Egge’s material. Clearly, motherhood has given an extra dimension to her worldly concerns, but you sense she’d be a sensitive, compassionate soul regardless. When you feel an involuntary tear drop or two rolling down your cheeks at this point you know this is music with the ability to engage you on a visceral, as well as intellectual, level. If ‘We Are One’ is a simple plea for humanity in an increasingly divided world, then there’s nothing other than simple joy to be had in ‘Dance Around The Room With Me.’ “If you’re feeling sad and blue/ I can wrap my arms around you” – she serenades us – with a bit of audience participation on the “It opens up, opens up your heart” chorus of the song.
Ana Egge has clearly been on a journey in all senses of the word – quite literally in the sense of a peripatetic life that has taken her from the plains of North Dakota to New Mexico, then on to Austin and more recently New York, where she seems to have a more permanent base. At the same time you feel this has given her the confidence to plot a musical career without fear or favour – and on the evidence available tonight – that’s rich cause for celebration.
Earlier on, Ben Kunder provided very able support, showcasing his latest album, ‘Better Human’ – a stirring and rousing set of songs.