Concert review: Jimmy Buffett at Fenway Park, or, Fins at the Fens

Billboard — “Fenway Park on Friday night. Who’d have ever thought it?” Having logged 30-some odd years in the music business, and presiding one of the most reliable draws to come down the road every summer, it’s tough for Jimmy Buffett to pull out many surprises these days.

But for the 2004 edition of his annual festival of shameless escapism, calypso/country and nice cold beverages, Buffett pulled out two doozies. One was his first-ever No. 1 record, “License To Chill,” a set of mostly country duets that surfed the momentum from his Alan Jackson duet “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” to become strongest studio album in years.

The second might have been more wicked: a two-night closing stand at Boston’s Fenway Park. And judging by his Sept. 10 show on those hallowed, cursed grounds, the latter may yet go down as the more memorable of the two. The Red Sox even re-jiggered the Green Monster’s hand-operated scoreboard to read JIMMY BUFFETT, much to the delight of everyone who smuggled a camera into the park.

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More Buffett and baseball:

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The coming of Buffett seemed a capitalized Event in a neighborhood that’s seen its share of them, and the king Parrothead only descended on Boston after some degree of bureaucratic hand-wringing. Neighbors and lawmakers were wary of the traditionally lubricated crowd, though a controversial city no-tailgating rule seemed to have little effect on the vibe — where can you tailgate in a neighborhood with no pahking anyway?

It was also a sequel of sorts; Buffett packed the ballpark exactly one year and three days after Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band re-christened it as a rock’n’roll destination. But Springsteen was touring behind his paean to 9/11, “The Rising,” which demanded at least a brief pause for reflection in the raucousness. Though their Sept. 10 and Sept. 12 shows bookended the attacks’ third anniversary, Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band — augmented by slide guitarist Sonny Landreth and Little Feat pianist Bill Payne, to bring the starting lineup up to 16 — harbored no delusions of purpose.

They were there to bring “Fins” to Fens, turn the heat and humidity up and rattle the house like it hadn’t been rattled since, well, the Red Sox’s collapse last October. Buffett himself smartly took time to acknowledge that, though he was the party’s host, he was also its de factor scorekeeper. “I just want to let y’all know,” he said upon returning from intermission, “The Yankees are losing 10-5,” and the resulting cheer might have thrown off cell phone reception all the way to Worcester.

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He spun a tale of how a wintertime barroom meeting with Boston Bruin Derek Sanderson inspired the frothy “Boat Drinks,” which he said is the only time he ever let himself write about hockey. And midway through the show, he produced a Caribbean-dressed “Jolly Mon” to officially reverse the curse. To do so, he wielded the lumber himself and hit T-shirts into the crowd, and damned if the 57-year-old didn’t go 4-for-4 (though it should be noted, evidently, that Springsteen’s 2003 attempt at same did not exactly take).

As one might be able to guess, “License To Chill,” despite its platinum status, hasn’t changed Buffett’s template much. The show remains deceptively simple, carefully orchestrated and very difficult not to grin through at least part of. And for two-and-a-half hours and 30 songs, the energized-almost-to-the-point-of-reverence Buffett (“This is kind of overwhelming,” he admitted early on) bounded about the stage, called audibles with his band and spun tales of pirates and tropics and means of escape that are forever just one hastily considered decision away.

“Let the world go to hell / I think I’m going back to Brazil,” he grinned in the album’s title track, illustrating his skill at tricking Sox fans into thinking they’re watching the sun drop in someplace like Fiji.

When he did evacuate the Keys for the more mainland-oriented “License” tracks, Buffett still hit surprisingly well (including new songs is a dicey maneuver when playing for a crowd that never tires of “Cheeseburger in Paradise”). “Coast of Carolina,” co-written with guitarist Mac McAnally, was a gentle breeze; the Will Kimbrough stomper “Piece of Work,” propelled by a driving Bo Diddley beat, was the most rock’n’roll song Buffett’s played in years. In the encores, “Scarlet Begonias” was as snug a fit as his standard but frothy cover of “Southern Cross” — you almost wonder what took so long for him to get to it.

Elsewhere, Buffett and his fine band had no trouble keeping the energy up. “One Particular Harbour” showcased Robert Greenidge’s steel drums; “Son of a Son of a Sailor” did the same with Nadirah Shakoor’s soaring vocals (the powerful singer tore up a brief cover of “Respect” as well). And Buffett used an opening mini-acoustic set to dust off “The Great Filling Station Hold-Up,” from his pre-“Fins” days of pickup trucks, honky-tonks and petty crime.

For those there to sing along loudly and badly, Buffett bookended “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” with slivers of “Purple Rain” and “Sweet Caroline,” probably the first time in recorded human history those three titles have ever appeared in a sentence together.

But in closing the show, Buffett dedicated Jesse Winchester’s pretty, breezy “Defying Gravity” to 9/11 victims, and in doing so, pulled off a surprisingly effective simplification of things. For four minutes, released from the cheeseburgers and the beach balls and the SUVs with papier-mache fins strapped atop them, Buffett was back in his early days — a guy with an easy smile and breezy demeanor, with several of his most recent ambitions met and the maddeningly enviable ability to do next whatever he pleases.
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Here is Jimmy Buffett’s set list:

  • “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” (acoustic)
  • “The Great Filling Station Holdup” (acoustic)
  • “Pencil Thin Mustache”
  • “We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us About”
  • “License To Chill”
  • “Son of a Son of a Sailor”
  • “Boat Drinks”
  • “Brown Eyed Girl”
  • “Volcano”
  • “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” / “Purple Rain” / “Sweet Caroline”
  • “Hey Good Lookin’ “
  • “The Pascagoula Run”
  • “One Particular Harbour”
  • “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”
  • “Respect” (Nadirah Shakoor vocals)
  • “The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful”
  • “Jamaica Mistaica”
  • “Come Monday”
  • “Jolly Mon”
  • “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere”
  • “Cheeseburger in Paradise”
  • “Coast of Carolina”
  • “Cuban Crime of Passion”
  • “A Pirate Looks at Forty”
  • “Piece of Work”
  • “Margaritaville”
  • “Fins”
  • “Scarlet Begonias”
  • “Southern Cross”
  • “Defying Gravity”

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

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