Jimmy Buffett Revisits Life Before the Beach in Return to Austin

Willis Alan Ramsey and Django Walker bubble up at Moody Center show

Fins Up: Jimmy Buffett, guaranteed dolphin-free. (Photo by John Anderson)

This year set up as celebratory for Jimmy Buffett, with the songwriter marking his 75th birthday and, perhaps more importantly for his legion of Parrothead fans, the 50th anniversary of the troubadour landing in Key West and launching a lifestyle that stands among the most valuable in music history.

On Saturday night, Buffett and his 12-piece Coral Reefer Band surfed into the new Moody Center for a show awash in escapist wistfulness, retrospective nostalgia, and a healthy tide of catharsis after the past few years sidelined by the pandemic. The 2.5 hour, 28 song set even included a few surprises, most notably when Buffett brought Willis Alan Ramsey onstage to perform his “Ballad of Spider John” together for apparently the first time ever.

The home video footage that opened the show set the tone, capturing Buffett in those pivotal early Seventies years discovering his beach vibe, a journey in which the progressive country music scene of Austin played a pivotal role. Jerry Jeff Walker’s son Django emerged as emissary for his late father, who is responsible for first hipping Buffett to both 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)

Those guest moments delivered the unique highlights to a show that was otherwise fairly business-as-usual for the Coral Reefer Band. Ever the entertainer, Buffett set up the songs with a few tales of his more transient days and plenty of Austin-shoutouts, but it was largely the crowd that fuelled any of the energy in the stadium as the players barely left their positions the whole set.

Granted, Buffett’s catalog digs so deeply familiar with beloved tunes that they can carry a concert. Ballads like “Son of a Son of Sailor,” “Come Monday,” “One Particular Harbour,” and “A Pirate Looks at Forty” balance against the anthems of “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” “Cheeseburger in Paradise” and, of course, “Margaritaville,” all soaked up by the audience with expected enthusiasm. And Buffett’s longtime right hand, Mac McAnally, was given appropriate moments in the spotlight with his “Back Where I Come From” and stunning solo rip of the Allman Brothers’ “Little Martha.”

The biggest disappointment that dragged the entire show, though, 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 cheesy stage setup looked on par with an “Under the Sea” themed senior prom, and the video screen was more a detriment than accentuation of the show. The animations were amateurish, the myriad drone pans of oceans and beaches played like a Windows screensaver, and worst of all, the localized Austin footage was generic and incongruous. For a tour about celebrating history, Austin could have provided an enticing archive of footage, but instead, for some reason, the video during “Changes In Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” played like a promotional reel for UT and the new Moody Center. Nearly everything in the production proved lackluster.

Among the many complaints reviewer Doug Freeman has with Buffett's production, he described footage of Austin as "generic and incongruous." (Photo by John Anderson)

For the nearly sold out, 12,000-strong crowd though, the pathetic production didn’t interfere with singing full-throated to “Brown Eyed Girl” or the encore opening of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Southern Cross.” Buffett remains rightfully beloved in Austin, and that feeling played genuinely mutual throughout the evening, especially with the tributes to Jerry Jeff and guesting of Ramsey. Buffett may have realized his ultimate groove on the sea, but it was in Austin before the beach where he truly became a songwriter.

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Jimmy Buffett, Willis Alan Ramsay, Jerry Jeff Walker, Django Walker, Mac McAnally

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