It was as much of a beach party as you can get without getting to an actual beach when Jimmy Buffet and his Coral Reefer Band played Montreal for the first time in 44 years, to a crowd filled with Parrotheads. The band offered a hit filled set of self-proclaimed ‘Carribean rock’ that got people singing, drinking and dancing.
Musically, this isn’t high art: the music itself is rarely original, but it has that instant familiarity that draws in everyone and puts everyone in party mode. It helps that the 72-year-old Buffett is highly charismatic: he may look like your dorky uncle at the beach, but with that boyish smile on his face all evening long, it’s hard to resist going along with it. He endeared himself to the crowd by speaking French most of the night, having obviously put in a lot of effort as you could tell some of his speeches were on the teleprompter to make sure he got them right.
The evening kicked off with ‘Licence to Chill’, as much a declaration of intent as an opening number. His songs are all about the mantra that life would be awesome if we spent it at the beach in flip-flops with a drink in our hand, and for almost 2 and a half hours, that’s the state of mind we were in. It’s really kitsch, but it works if you let it.
What his fanbase up north lacks in numbers (the MTELUS may have been close to sold out, but Buffett regularly plays arenas and baseball stadiums in the United States), they more than made up in enthusiasm. They sang all the words, passed beach balls around (even an inflatable dolphin) and danced at every opportunity. Buffett and his band wisely filled the setlist with his best known songs; in fact, if you have the 7-time platinum 1985 compilation ‘Songs You Know By Heart’, you knew most of the set.
Buffett’s music veers from country/folk to pseudo-reggae to pseudo-New Orleans jazz, often mixing all three. He has a knack for melodies that makes the music rise above its simplicity. Whether he’s singing about the perfect burger (‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’, one of the highlights) or the perfect time for a cocktail (‘It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere’), Buffett has that ability to deliver lyrics that walk the fine line between cool and cheesy with an honesty that makes you just roll with it. His ‘joie-de-vivre’ injects all his songs with a vitality and zest that elevate the live versions over their studio counterparts.
Buffett was proud to mention throughout the night that his grand-father had been a sailor in Nova Scotia, truly making him a ‘Son of a Son of a Sailor’. ‘Volcano’ was another early crowd pleaser, with the singer adding in a subtle zinger in the direction of the current US President (“Don’t wanna land in no Mar-a-Lago”) that largely went unnoticed. ‘Fins’ also fired up the crowd, making mockup shark fins over their heads for the “Fins to the left, fins to the right” chorus.
To mark their return to Montreal, Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band played a couple of songs by Jesse Winchester, an American expatriate who spent a few years in Montreal in the early 70’s. With a similar style to his own material, the songs integrated nicely into the set. They also played two new songs that the singer says will appear on his next album, due next year. While “Half Drunk” didn’t give much to look forward to (maybe you need to be to appreciate), the other was upbeat and had more going for it.
The band closed the main set with a great cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s ‘Southern Cross’, followed by his classic track ‘Margaritaville’, a song that was recognized by the Grammy Hall of Fame for its cultural significance, and one that Buffett turned into a billion dollar enterprise. It turned into a giant singalong, the kind that can only happen with songs that have symbolically left the songwriter’s ownership to be adopted by generations of fans.
As an encore, Buffett played his fantastic cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’, ‘One Particular Harbour’ and a final Jesse Winchester cover to finish a fun night filled with dreams of the sea and a simpler life.
Montreal fans had to wait a long time to see Jimmy Buffett play in their home town, but he was worth the wait. Now let’s hope he sticks to his promise of coming back sooner, because none of us are getting any younger.