In 2008, Aftermath was on vacation in France. We decided to catch a show of the Spaghetti Western Orchestra, who had a month-long performance residency at a tiny theater in the Bastille neighborhood of Paris. The band is an Australian quintet that performs the music of Ennio Morricone and other Italian Western composers, along with vaudevillian slapstick. Their audience was entirely French, save for Aftermath and our significant other, and so, when the SWO made a non-sequitur joke about Jimmy Buffett in French, Aftermath wondered if maybe something was lost in the translation. Was there some secret Parisian thing about Buffett, you know, like the stereotype that all the French love Jerry Lewis? After the show, we were waiting in line to buy a CD from the band. Some dude in front of us was taking a long time chatting up the drummer when Aftermath's significant other started pounding his elbow into our ribs and pointing. The leisurely man in front of us was none other than Jimmy Buffett. Suddenly the joke made sense. The best part of the story is that Buffett was wearing a black beret and a black turtleneck. No wonder we didn't recognize him. Seeing Buffett so out of context reminds us of all that we appreciate about the king of the Parrotheads. And though he's never found much critical success, plenty of other people appreciate him too. He's built an entire empire out of his beach-bum lifestyle, from books to bars to even a line of Margaritaville-brand shoes. And his concerts, like Thursday night's at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, almost always sell out.
Aftermath has never been a Jimmy Buffett fan, and our knowledge of his music is casual at best (especially compared to many Parrotheads), but it's nearly impossible not to like the guy. His lyrical appreciation of the picaresque reminds us of some of our favorite travel writers, and his charitable works - he founded the Save the Manatee Club and has worked to raise substantial money for hurricane relief - are respectable. And the high points of his career often seem to correspond with the low points of American society: The uncertainty of the post-Vietnam '70s, the nuclear '80s and the current tough economic times. Buffett is selling the most accessible form of escapism - music. And with Jimmy Buffett, you always know what you're gonna get. He makes no false pretenses. Wikipedia tells us his concerts always follow the same structure and often feature at least eight of his hits and standards. If you've never been to a Buffett concert (Aftermath hadn't until yesterday), imagine a luau with 15,586 guests. That was the official attendance of Thursday's show. The fans are as much a part of the concert as the band. As we were walking from the parking lot, a woman pulled over and asked Aftermath who was playing. When we told her she responded, "I can tell from what everyone's wearing." If you didn't have a lei on or an aloha shirt, you were underdressed (and that's compared to the women in bikinis). One of the first people Aftermath saw was a 50-year-old man in a grass skirt, and we counted at least two women in coconut bras. Parrotheads proudly proclaimed their status with foam parrot hats and 20-year-old Buffett tour T-shirts. Tailgating in a specially designated area of the Woodlands Mall parking lot started as early as 10 a.m. This is something that Aftermath did not know, that people tailgated at a Buffett concert. People dragged actual full-sized tiki bars out with them, and one guy had converted his truck bed into a volcano. It was a novelty to see citizens of The Woodlands parading around with open containers right under the noses of the cops hired to corral traffic and drunk Parrotheads, but the cops took it all in stride. Two cops on scooters even had official Hawaiian shirts with "POLICE" embroidered on them. At any other show, the critical mass of 15,000 drunk fans might have resulted in a lot more aggression, but Buffett fans are so laid-back. Do not threaten them with a good time. They cheered on the street corner when the crosswalk turned green. They cheered before the show started when The Camps' "Tequila" was played. They cheered for the two goofy dudes manning the T-shirt cannon before the Coral Reefer Band took the stage. And of course, they cheered at the images of themselves tailgating in the parking lot that were shown during the show's intermission.
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Buffett didn't have an opening band billed as such, but Ilo Ferreira, introduced by Buffett, played a handful of songs before the main man took the stage. As he walked to the mike, Buffett kicked of his flip-flops, a move Aftermath found utterly endearing. Then he kicked off the show with "Nobody from Nowhere," off his 2009 album Buffet Hotel. Old photos of him from the '70s - when he still had hair, and it wasn't white - played on the screen. As a casual listener, Aftermath enjoys Buffett's older stuff - Son of A Son of A Sailor, specifically. He didn't play "African Friend," but a video of him performing it in the '80s played on the big screen during intermission. He did play another old favorite, "Pencil Thin Mustache," preceded by a shoutout to Buffalo Bayou, and "Knees of My Heart."
Buffett is known for peppering his onstage banter with references to current events and details local to the city he's playing. During "Volcano" he joked about Iceland's Eyjafjallajokul. During "Window on the World," images of the International Space Station crew STS-131 played on the screen. Buffett, who is also a pilot, mentioned NASA several times during the show. Backup singer Nadirah Shakoor took over vocals for "Creola" while Buffett played a concert-sized ukulele. It was about this time that Aftermath came up with the perfect description for Buffett's music: It's blue-eyed soul gone Caribbean. Buffett played "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and "Margaritaville" as expected, but not "Why Don't We Get Drunk." Despite the cheesy name, "A Pirate Looks at 40" was amazingly moving, and even his bad Tahitian accent was charming on "One Particular Harbor." That's the thing about the guy - no matter what's he's doing, he's having fun, and the fun is infectious. Buffett closed his set with Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Southern Cross," and during his second encore, changed the lyrics of "Cowboy in the Jungle" to say "I don't want to swim in an oily sea/ The Gulf of Mexico does not belong to BP." Then he wished the crowd a good night. "Have a great summer," he said. "Save the Gulf!"