Jimmy Buffett revisits life before the beach in Return to Austin: Willis Alan Ramsey and Django Walker blow bubbles at the Moody Center show – Music
Fins Up: Jimmy Buffett, Guaranteed Dolphin Free. (Photo by John Anderson)
This year was set up to celebrate Jimmy Buffett, the songwriter marking his 75th birthday and, perhaps more importantly for his legion of Parrothead fans, the 50th anniversary of the troubadour’s landing in Key West and the launch of a lifestyle that is among the most treasured in the history of music.
On Saturday night, Buffett and his 12-piece Coral Reefer Band surfed the new Moody Center for a show awash in escapist melancholy, retrospective nostalgia, and a healthy wave of catharsis after the last few years sidelined by the pandemic. The 2.5-hour, 28-song set even included a few surprises, including when Buffett brought Willis Alan Ramsey on stage to perform his “Ballad of Spider John” together for the apparently first time.
The home video footage that opened the show set the tone, capturing Buffett in those pivotal years of the early ’70s discovering his beach vibe, a journey in which Austin’s progressive country music scene played a central role. Jerry Jeff Walker’s son Django became an emissary for his late father, who is in charge of Buffett’s first expedition to Key West and the Texas Hill Country, and performed his own “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Boat” and joined the encore finale of “Sangria”. Wine.”
“Barefoot Oldman”: Jimmy Buffett, performing at the Moody Center with his Coral Reefer Band. (Photo by John Anderson)
These guest moments delivered the unique highlights of a show that was otherwise pretty normal for the Coral Reefer Band. Ever the entertainer, Buffett set up the songs with some stories from his more transitional days and plenty of Austin shout-outs, but it was largely the crowd that fueled the energy in the stadium as the players barely left their positions the whole set.
Certainly, Buffett’s catalog digs so deeply familiar with beloved tunes that they can carry a gig. Ballads like “Son of a Son of Sailor”, “Come Monday”, “One Particular Harbour” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty” are balanced with the anthems of “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”, “Cheeseburger in Paradise and, of course, “Margaritaville,” all absorbed by the audience with expected enthusiasm. And Buffett’s longtime right-hand man, Mac McAnally, received fitting moments in the spotlight with his “Back Where I Come From” and his superb solo rip of the Allman Brothers’ “Little Martha.”
The biggest disappointment that dragged down the entire show, however, was the apparent afterthought given to the production. No one expects (or wants) Buffett to take on the Moody Center like Justin Bieber, but the nerdy stage setup looked like an “Under the Sea”-themed senior ball, and the video screen was more of a prejudice than an accentuation of the spectacle. The animations were amateurish, the myriad drone pans of oceans and beaches played like a Windows screensaver, and worst of all, the localized footage of Austin was generic and incongruous. For a tour on the celebration of history, Austin could have provided a tantalizing archive of footage, but instead, for some reason, the video during “Changes In Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” played as a promotional reel for UT and the new Moody Center. Almost everything in production turned out to be lackluster.
Among the many complaints critic Doug Freeman has about Buffett’s production, he described Austin’s footage as “generic and incongruous.” (Photo by John Anderson)
For the nearly exhausted crowd of 12,000, the pathetic production didn’t interfere with the full-throated singing of “Brown Eyed Girl” or the encore opening of “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Buffett remains rightfully loved in Austin, and that feeling played out truly reciprocated throughout the evening, especially with the tributes to Jerry Jeff and guest Ramsey. Buffett may have achieved his ultimate groove on the sea, but it was in Austin before the beach that he really became a songwriter.