On a sweltering July afternoon last year, 22 acts got onstage for a few thousand people and, with three songs each, tried to capture audience members' hearts.
No, it wasn't some road tour of "American Idol" -- the annual "Emerging Artist Showcase" at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival has plenty more talent than that, and no snarky trio of judges to face.
But the idea is basically the same: Festival-goers who gathered at the upstate farm in Hillsdale got to vote for their favorites, and the three winners would become part of the festival preview tour sent to venues all over the Northeast.
Two of the chosen ones, country-folk trio Red Molly and slide-guitar songwriter Pat Wictor, already should be familiar to Tier concert-goers; the third, Minneapolis-based singer/songwriter Ellis, is new to the region. None of them is still wet behind the ears career-wise -- Ellis, for instance, just finished recording her sixth CD for release early next year -- but the tour should help all of them "emerge" to more recognition in the national folk-music consciousness.
Reached a couple of weeks ago during a long drive across South Dakota, Ellis expressed excitement over going on the road with her newfound Falcon Ridge friends: "We couldn't have asked for a better mix of people. I anticipate much fun and goodwill happening on this tour."
While Red Molly and Wictor lean more toward the traditional end of things, Ellis is a vanguard of a more personal brand of folk that looks inward for meaning and answers. Her songs are poetic and powerful; her vocals are passionate, with a helping of rock and a touch of jazz. In concert, her self-deprecating banter and infectious laughter help her form an easy bond with audiences.
"I do feel there's an energy and a connection that happens when I'm onstage, and it enriches my life so much. It makes me feel less alone in the world, and I get so much joy and connection out of it," Ellis said. "It reminds us that we're all the same. It's a cliché for a reason: We are all the same, and we're all caught in this crazy human game -- we're trying to figure it out, and loving and losing and laughing and crying and all of that. Music is a wonderful way to really get to the heart of the human experience -- man, I'm sold. I love it."
Ellis started performing in high school. In college in Minnesota she was part of a rock band with the unlikely name of Bobby Llama. Striking out on her own in 1996, she formed her own record label and began building her cultish fan base in the Twin Cities area. It's a love that flows both ways: Six fans co-produced her last CD, a live effort called "Evidence of Joy," and investors helped to fund her new album in $1,000 increments.
"I do feel that asking for help is very humbling and vulnerable in some ways," she said of the unusual collaborations. "People really want to be involved -- that's the thing I've heard from people who love my music. They want to help out in any way they can, so for me to offer a way to help is also a really wonderful gift that I can give them."
The best gifts, of course, are the songs themselves, from the love roller-coaster of "Hurricane" and the honest come-hither of "Pick-Up Song" to the challenge to strive higher in "How Would It Be." But like most of us, there's also a whimsical side: "Coffee Song," an ode to her favorite beverage; "Georgeanne," about a series of wrong-number phone calls to her apartment, and "Parking Lot," about her tendency to forget where she's left her car.
"It was inevitable that I would write songs that express light-heartedness, because I have that in my life -- I have some humor as well as feeling very intense at times, very philosophical about life and taking life very seriously," Ellis said. "I really do feel I'm two-fisted that way -- the daylight and the dark."
Standing in between those extremes is Ellis, strumming away and trying to make sense of it all -- for herself and for us.
IF YOU GO
* What: Falcon Ridge Folk Festival preview tour with Pat Wictor, Ellis and Red Molly
* When: 8 p.m. Saturday
* Where: Night Eagle Cafe, 200 State St., Binghamton
* Tickets: $17 (advance ticket purchase is recommended; buy online at www.nighteaglecafe.org)
* More information: www.patwictor.com; www.ellis-music.com; www.redmolly.com
Falcon Ridge stars to roost at Night Eagle (2007)