'Build the new arena and he will come!' Jimmy Buffett lights up Austin's Moody Center
"You never know what’s going to happen in Austin!”
Jimmy Buffett had a giant grin on his face, basking in the moment of giving the city a very special moment on Saturday night at the Moody Center.
Fifty years ago, Buffett explained, he was just beginning his career when he heard the self-titled debut album from a 21-year-old Austin troubadour named Willis Alan Ramsey. Buffett covered that album's opening track, "Ballad of Spider John," for his 1974 album "Living and Dying in 3/4 Time" — but the two songwriters apparently had never sung the song onstage together. Until this night.
As memorable moments at the new arena go, this one ranked second only to George Strait and Willie Nelson dueting on "Sing One With Willie" a few weeks ago. Buffett cracked early in Saturday's two-hour set (plus a three-song encore) that the fresh arena had drawn him in: "Build the new arena and he will come!"
Indeed, he was overdue for a big-venue performance in Austin. Because Buffett often rehearses his Coral Reefer Band here before launching tours, he's played tune-up gigs at smaller venues such as ACL Live and Stubb's in recent years. But the last time he'd played one of the city's large venues was in 2014 at the Austin360 Amphitheater.
Buffett's ties to Austin run deep. He noted when introducing "Margaritaville," which closed the main set, that he'd begun writing the tune here in the mid-1970s. “It started in Austin in a little tequila bar," he explained. "We had a couple margaritas in the morning.”
He'd been drawn here in the first place by Jerry Jeff Walker, who had previously driven Buffett from Miami to Key West in the early 1970s and "changed my life," he explained when introducing the mid-set number "Migration."
Buffett's first gigs in Austin were at the folk club Castle Creek in 1974. He moved up to Armadillo World Headquarters in 1976 and then to the Erwin Center in the 1980s, taping a couple of "Austin City Limits" episodes along the way.
Walker died in 2020, but his son Django Walker helps carry on Jerry Jeff's legacy. Django co-wrote a song called "Somethin' 'Bout a Boat" that Buffett recorded for his 2013 album "Songs From St. Somewhere," so it was fitting that Django joined him onstage for the tune.
While the guest stars made the evening specially tailored for a nearly sold-out Austin audience, much of the show simply featured Buffett and his 12-piece Coral Reefer Band doing what they do best: playing songs Buffett has made famous across a five-decade career with a breezy, carefree joie de vivre. They rolled out the hits with world-class musicianship, from the get-this-party-started reveler "Fins" to Buffett's 1974 breakthrough single "Come Monday" to the title tracks of his late-'70s albums "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes," "Son of a Son of a Sailor" and "Volcano."
Much of the energy at a Buffett show comes from the crowd, which lit up the arena in pastel colors with their bright beach attire. Buffett acknowledged those decked out in sailor and mermaid outfits early in the set. Before the music started — and stretching several songs into the show — concertgoers on the arena floor batted beach balls back and forth, plus one small inflatable shark.
Guitarist Mac McAnally, literally Buffett's right-hand man onstage, is his perfect foil, a 10-time Country Music Association musician of the year who underscores his boss's sheer love for playing music. He got his own solo spotlight mid-set with a sterling rendition of the late Duane Allman's instrumental "Little Martha."
McAnally's own tune "Back Where I Come From" was a well-chosen full-band rocker in the home stretch, after Buffett and steel drums ace Robert Greenidge had played a moving duo rendition of "A Pirate Looks at Forty." Other members of the Coral Reefer Band included Texans Nadirah Shakoor (from San Antonio) on backing vocals and Doyle Grisham (from Temple) on pedal steel; the father-son team of Michael and Mick Utley on keyboards; brothers Peter and Jim Mayer on guitar and bass; drummer Roger Guth; percussionist Eric Darken; trumpeter John Lovell; and backing vocalist/guitarist Tina Gullickson.
The main set closed with a rousing cover of Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" — complete with Buffett dancing barefoot across the stage to the crowd's delight — and the shaker-of-salt sing-along "Margaritaville." A 15-minute encore began with a lovely version of Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Southern Cross" and the acoustic waltz "Book on the Shelf," from Buffett's 2020 album "Life on the Flip Side."
There was one last hometown treat. Buffett invited Django Walker back onstage for his late father's 1973 classic "Sangria Wine." Django sang out loud and proud when he reached the line in the middle of the song that fit the moment exactly: "In Austin on a Saturday night."
Set list for Jimmy Buffett concert at Moody Center
1. "Down at the Lah De Dah"
3. "Stars on the Water"
4. "Knees of My Heart"
5. "Pencil Thin Mustache"
6. "Son of a Son of a Sailor"
7. "The Slow Lane"
8. "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere"
9. "Come Monday
10. "Growing Older But Not Up"
12. "Nobody From Nowhere"
14. "Little Martha"
15. "Ballad of Spider John"
16. "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes"
17. "Somethin' 'Bout a Boat"
18. Last Mango in Paris
19. "Cheeseburger in Paradise"
20. "Cowboy in the Jungle"
21. "One Particular Harbour"
22. "A Pirate Looks at Forty"
23. "Back Where I Come From"
24. "Brown Eyed Girl"
26. "Southern Cross"
27. "Book on the Shelf"
28. "Sangria Wine"