What might have been the last Brightlingsea Free Music Festival may not have been the biggest – or even the best – but in the end that simply didn't matter.
That's not to say that there weren't some great performers up on the Hurst Green stage. As ever, the quality was excellent and the variety – everything from shanties to Abba – meant there was something for everyone.
But it seemed to me that what meant most to the people who braved a wild weekend of weather was being out, being in a crowd of like-minded folk, being able to chill with family and friends, being able to dance on the grass – just being there, drinking in the experience of doing something that we took for granted before 2020 and the pandemic.
In the years since the festival moved to Hurst Green – after early events on Promenade Way got a little too big to handle safely – it's been much more of a family show. Perhaps being surrounded by houses helped to calm things down, though the change of mood – lively on Saturday, more relaxed on Sunday – played its part, too.
And if the music wasn't always to your taste, well, you could just move your picnic blanket further away from the stage, drink your wine and people watch – seeing your outwardly staid neighbour with a painted face and a cherished t-shirt from their punk rocker youth was always a treat.
There was something hugely comforting about looking around and seeing people we know – toddlers, teenagers, parents and grandparents, neighbours – safe, relaxed, happy and enjoying themselves. Who could fail to feel part of something bigger, proud to belong to our little community? Brightlingsea may not be perfect – where is – but when the sun and smiles came out and music flowed, who wanted to be anywhere else?
Touch and go
Lockdowns and restrictions did for the 2020 festival and, for a time, it was touch and go for the 2021 incarnation too. Despite the the absence of a sponsor, making the soaring hire costs of toilets and stage even more painful, the festival committee – and a small army of helpers – managed to get the event up and running in record time. So what if the stage was a bit smaller than in 2019. There were more local bands than in previous years – not a bad thing at all – and local up-and-comers When Rivers Meet would have been worthy Saturday headliners at any time over the last 20 years.
But all good things come to an end. The festival committee have decided to call it a day and, faced with increased cost pressures and two decades of organising, who can blame them. Any money left from this year's event will be given to charity, but their expertise will still be available to anyone else who wants to take up the challenge of running a free music festival.
Keeping it free was one of the committee's mantras – and one that certainly helped its appeal to the town. Another aim was to showcase new and original music but after years of refusing to bow to pressure to put on more covers bands, this year's final act broke the rules – perfectly. Agnetha and Anni-Frid soundalikes and lookalikes Zoe and Kirsty knocked out hit after Abba hit and had a field full of enthusiastic dancers as a reward.
And when we all sang along with Thank You for the Music – it was the line printed on the back of the 2021 festival t-shirt after all – we really meant it. Thanks, Brightlingsea Free Music Festival – it's been a blast.
Thanks to Colm O'Laoi for the pictures
• What were your Festival highlights? Add a comment below.