It was September 28, 1996, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the temperature was in the low seventies. The Gorge Amphitheater is an outdoor theater perched on the side of the Columbia River. The stage is right on the edge, a straight drop to the water below. It had banana trees growing on each side of it and palm trees waving in the wind against a backdrop and a lot of bamboo here and there. Across the water is the other side of the gorge, marked with geological striations in sand and dull red, and above, when we got there, the setting sun. (Naturally people lied to me and told me a chilly breeze would come up off the river and I’d better take at least a sweatshirt, if not a heavy jacket. It never showed. I did have brains enough not to bring the jacket.) There are chairs in front (the reserved seats), and grass tiers in the back (the cheap seats).
I found my seat (Row 23, Seat 48) and was surrounded by crazy people in parrot beaks and parrot hats and pirate hats and one woman with an entire pink plastic flamingo perched on her head and Jimmy Buffett tour t-shirts twenty years old. At any one time, half a dozen beach balls were being volleyed around the crowd, including one about six feet in diameter. Two guys, one with a popup basketball net strapped to his back, tossed a ball out to the crowd and they would throw it back and he tried to catch it. Fifteen minutes before the concert they started shooting t-shirts into the cheap seats with a rubber slingshot, and then moved up to the stage to shoot t-shirts at the reserved seats with this giant banana. Yes, a giant banana. No, I wasn’t drinking, I was the only one without a cooler, remember?
Eventually, the sun went down, the moon rose up, the stars came out, and so did Jimmy.
Between the reserved and the cheap seats, there was a little mini stage, barely big enough for two people, and I’ll be damned if Jimmy doesn’t climb on board along with an acoustic guitar and his harmonica player. The mini-stage rises about twenty feet in the air and Jimmy yells out, “My god, it looks like we got ourselves a PARTY!”
The crowd didn’t disagree.
Himself on his acoustic guitar and his harmonica player launch into Great Filling Station Holdup, and then, after he says we can sing along but for christ’s sake not to jump his lines, Pencil Thin Mustache.
We were his from that moment, and he knew it. The mini-stage came down, he climbed off and walked down the aisle to the big stage, shaking hands as he went. The whole thing was on video tape so that those of us not close enough to slap skin could watch his progress on two screens mounted above and to the left and right of the stage.
He gets up on stage, wearing blue shorts and a yellow t-shirt and without further ado his band, a horn, two saxophones, a bass guitar, a drummer, a steel drum player, a guy on bongo drums, three outstanding backup singers, Michael Utley (!!!) on the keyboards and I forget the name of the harmonica player, give out with the opening chords to One Particular Harbor. I am here to tell you, you haven’t heard One Particular Harbor until you’ve heard it live from the man at the Gorge, under a starlit sky, in company with 25,000 other fans who know all the words and are not shy about singing along. He made us sing the chorus. In Polynesian.
Then, from the same album, it was Stars on the Water and from the new album, School Boy Heart, which Jimmy dedicated to Brian Wilson. Venus rose up in back of the cheap seats. The night was ours.
He led into Juicyfruit by telling us, “If you don’t make it to church tomorrow, this works just as well.” Nobody argued.
Before he played Come Monday, he offered his thanks to the entire Pacific Northwest (I hope he doesn’t mind if I include Alaska in that) because that was where this first hit of his first took off. He talked about playing the Paramount Theater in front of only thirty or forty people, “but all thirty or forty of you were boogeying your asses off! So thank you for my summer job, and just remember, I’m spending your money foolishly!” A couple two rows down who together must have weighed 600 pounds sang all the lyrics all the way through staring deeply into each other’s eyes, and at the final chord exchanged a passionate kiss. The single woman standing next to them burst into tears. I thought it was kind of cute.
Now, Jimmy said, he was going to play Cecil B. DeBuffett and make a movie and we were the extras. He got hold of a video camera while the band played Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw (“NOT my mother’s favorite song!”) and two locals with no talent in awful costumes came out on stage and sort of sang along, while Jimmy took pictures of the crowd and the pictures played on the screens above. One guy was waving a dope lei and Jimmy, on camera, points and says, “Is that what I think it is?” and laughs big. A second man holds up a sign that says, “2001, I’ll bring the ice.”
Jimmy sets up the next song by telling us he has rules for traveling. Number One is Never Forget To Duck, which just naturally leads into the story of how he was flying down to Jamaica and “They mistook me for a dope dealer! Can you IMAGINE?” The drummer was supposed to go baddaboom and missed his cue and everybody cracked up, including Buffett. “We were shot at 137 times and got hit twice. Nothing to do but laugh and get drunk.” And they play Jamaica Mistaka, and then Fruitcakes to an accompanying video of early arrivals that afternoon, my friend with his inflatable wading pool, now filled with water, a bunch of people playing grabass in what is evidently a dumptruck load of trucked in white sand and lots of tequila bottles with dangerously low levels.
Of course the only way to round off the first set was with Fins and Cheeseburger in Paradise, so he did, and then he told us all to go get a beer while he took a short break.
But wait–there was a halftime show, a video of Jimmy going places in his plane, talking about his toys–”Toys are very important to me,” he says with a stern look at the camera. Three what looked like college football players show up in front of me and light up a reefer and start toking. Ah, I feel 19 again.
Fifteen minutes later (when Jimmy says short, he means short) they were all back on stage, playing Son of a Son of a Sailor, Big Round Ball, (the moon was well up by then), It’s My Job, which almost had me in tears because he meant every word of it straight from the heart, Boat Drinks, Changes in Latitudes, this great song I never heard before called In the City that played to a video of Seattle and a bunch of other Northwest towns, Desdemona’s Building a Rocket Ship, during which he asked the people on the hill to keep their eyes peeled for the Pleides (seven sisters, she hears her seven sisters), A Pirate Looks at 40 during which half the crowd breaks out the skull-and-crossbones and waves it, Southern Cross, during which, if the amphitheater had had a roof, it would have blown off, Brown-Eyed Girl and we were dancing on the seats, and, of course, Margaritaville. I don’t have to tell you we sang along to that one, too. Every now and then one of the beach balls bouncing around the audience from the cheap seats to the reserved seats and back again would bounce up on stage, and ol’ Jimmy, without missing a lick or a beat, would take a hop-skip and boot it back to us.
Of course after Margaritaville we weren’t leaving, and he knew it, and he came back out and they did Volcano while the brass section got down and funky, and Saturday Night.
We still wouldn’t leave, so for a final encore Jimmy came out, all by himself, just him and his guitar, to play and sing This One’s For You. Now, our boy singer, Mr. Jimmy Boo-fay, was quoted not two days before in an article in the Seattle P-I, saying he couldn’t sing. I beg to differ. The boy’s got pipes, and a whole lotta soul.
If this is what a concert is really supposed to be like, I’ve never been to a concert before. Eric Clapton, the Neville Brothers, yeah, great acts, fine.
They could all take lessons from Jimmy Buffet.