By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer
Hudson – Long after their show at this year’s Hudson Balloons and Blues festival ended, bassist Howie Swett and sound designer John May of the Mychael David Project watched the festival’s headliner, Bruce Marshall wrap up his performance.
While Marshall performed, hot air balloons rose and eventually fell in the field before him. In those moments, festival attendees were able to see the combination that organizers have been trying to polish for the past two years — hot air balloons and live music.
“They love to watch the balloons and talk to the balloon pilots all about what they do,” said Bob Hopkins, a Hudson-Concord Elks Club lodge secretary and balloon festival organizer. “At the same time, they’re entertained by three very good live bands. They stick around and they listen to the bands play all afternoon.”
After running continually for seven years from 2005 to 2011, Hopkins said the festival was “stagnant.” As a result, organizers suspended the tradition for three years while they brainstormed ways to breathe life back into ballooning in Hudson.
What they came up with was the new “Balloons and Blues” format, featuring three bands playing back-to-back from 3 p.m. to around 9:30 p.m. on the festival’s biggest day — Saturday. While the bands play, balloons ideally take flight in the early evening and return after dusk for a “glow” where they inflate, but never take off.
“We are trying to create a family atmosphere,” Hopkins said. “It’s always been geared to the family. We don’t charge them a lot of money to come in. We absorb almost all the expenses and we charge them a minimal fee to come to the festival.”
The combination proved to draw substantially larger crowds than before the changes even though the balloons were temporarily grounded a year ago by threat of storms and again this year due to wind.
“[Last year,] the people that came were coming for the music as much as they were coming for the balloon festival,” Hopkins said. “It [attendance] grew from 1,300 people to 3,500 people last year.”
Each of the last two festivals have featured Concord native Bruce Marshall as their headliner. In both years the New England-born front man of his self-titled Bruce Marshall Group brought in other local acts to fill out the rest of the Balloons and Blues lineup.
Boston based singer-songwriter, Britt Connors and her band Bourbon Renewal, were the first of those acts to hit Hudson this year, singing a selection of her blues- themed songs. Connors, a friend of Marshall’s, got her spot in the Hudson lineup when Marshall recommended her to organizers.
“They wanted someone who could play some blues and rock so we tried to go heavier on that today,” Connors said of her approach to the festival. “They wanted someone who could rock out a little bit. I think we did that today.”
Connors’s debut in Hudson this year came a year after Marshall was able to get country artist Mychael David and his band, the Mychael David Project on stage in a similar manner. For David, that first year with the new emphasis on music was exciting.
“It was a lot of fun,” David said. “A new venue is always fun. We meet a lot of new people. [We] make a lot of new fans and new friends. It’s a good time.”
The Mychael David Project, returned this year as the second act at the festival.
According to Hopkins, organizers have no plans to change the festival’s format in the immediate future. He cited the increase in attendance that the introduction of music has brought about as a main reason for this.
Hopkins said in the days leading up to this year’s festival that, after attendance nearly doubled between 2011 and 2015, he was expecting that number to rise again.
As attendance increased, David said he has seen the role of music at the festival increase as well. He hopes he can help continue this trend.
“We love it. We love being a part of something and building it,” David said. “We have been doing this a long time. We have built a lot of venues and we are proud to be a part of building this one too.”