Jimmy Buffett plays the New Orleans Jazz Fest
May 4, 2002 - New Orleans, Louisiana
On Saturday, May 4th., the proud, patriarchal parrothead from Pascagoula, Mississippi played to a Hot, Hot, Hot crowd at the New Orleans Jazz Fest. Yes, Jimmy Buffett, played a full one hundred minutes of Margaritaville and much more to a crowd of well over 100,000. The main stage was surrounded by parrotheads with fins to the left and fins to the right. Beach balls were bouncing above the crowd and banners from nearly every state in the union marked the vast New Orleans Fair Grounds floor show area.
Way on the other side of the Fair Grounds, on a much smaller stage, Better Than Ezra was playing to a more modest crowd. Having never seen the original Ezra play, I had no point of reference to see if the latest group was truly better. Then again, if a band called Better Than Buffett would have been playing, I may have been curious enough to give them a listen.
As a child of the late seventies, I remember well the Top 40 favorites Jimmy released and I have often wondered why his popularity has translated so well to a new generation of fans. I believe the answer is simple---versatility and sincerity. Only a supergroup like the Eagles can compare with Buffett's success. These musicians can easily switch from soft rock, to folk, to country, to reggae, to hard rock convincingly with lyrics, which tell of personal experiences that we can all relate to. Style, substance, and depth are three things quite foreign to today's music industry---yet, they still sell, without having to sell out to flashy promotions, skimpy outfits, or Hollywood lifestyle-like gossip.
On to the show itself; usually, Jazz Fest is the last big spring fling in the Crescent City before the five months of oppressive heat and humidity set in. Generally, the first week of May is merely a sultry mudbug steambath. This year, however, it was a full-blown, raging crawfish boil with temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity pushing 100 percent. Not to mention a cloudless sky with little or no surface wind blowing. Not surprisingly, Jimmy started out with an up tempo cover of “Hot, Hot, Hot”.
He followed with “Margaritaville”, a song he played with Jerry Jeff Walker two weeks earlier at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, TX---where he supposedly got the inspiration to write the song (according to local urban legend). Then he eased in to “Stars on the Water”, a Rodney Crowell song. He came back with a spirited version of “The Weather Is Here, I Wish You Were Beautiful”. “Come Monday” got the crowd singing along again before he shifted into a dance number about Miami, followed by “I Will Play for Gumbo”.
The eclectic mix of his signature songs continued with such favorites as “Cheeseburger In Paradise” and “A Pirate Looks at 40”, then he broke stride and played a truly jazzy version of “Buffett's Hotel” with an energetic trumpet solo which really cut through the thick, humid haze of the evening. Unexpectedly, he paid a tribute to David Crosby by playing a version of “Southern Cross” that was truly inspired.
Just when I thought he would bow out early, he launched into “Fins” which got the crowd rocking again with non-obscene hand gestures. The apparent closing song was “Last Man Standing”, which is reminiscent of Don Henley's “I Will Not Go Quietly” or even Elton John's “I'm Still Standing”. I glanced down at my watch and noticed it was 7:00. Surely, the show was over. Friday night, Bonnie Raitt had left early. This was it, he was through.
Five minutes later, as I was contemplating the long walk back to the parking lot and an hour wait for a bus to take me back to the hotel, Jimmy resurfaced for an encore! He played a vibrant version of John Hiatt's “The Tiki Bar Is Open” and then a somber, reflective rendition of Van Morrison's “Brown Eyed Girl”. Over one hundred minutes of well produced, well performed favorites. I'm not a parrothead, and I never will be; yet for one hot, sultry afternoon in New Orleans, I saw one of the best shows I've ever seen. Hats off to you Jimmy, and fins up! We know you'll never have to play for gumbo again.