On a sweltering Thursday night at First Niagara Pavilion, Jimmy Buffett managed to reel in more Parrotheads than a Pirates mascot tryout. The field was awash with Hawaiian shirts and more than a few hula skirts in a frighteningly even ratio of genders -- all packed to the edges of the field to experience the "Lounging at the Lagoon" atmosphere.
But how, exactly, do we define the essence of that spirit -- one that causes entire highways to condense into one thick mess of cars? What inspires that appeal, a fanaticism that broaches on a tempered Phish-like devotion?
The answer works only if you buy in to Jimmy Buffett -- which turns out to be quite easy, if you take it with a grain (or should I say shaker?) of salt. Just go ahead and strap on the grass skirt. Pump up the beach balls. Cut up some limes.
What Mr. Buffett manages to create, through the beach-side flavor and the carefree lyrics of his music, is the laid-back fantasy of a vacation. On an average work night, he can transform a music pavilion into a weekday getaway, even if he does forget that it's Thursday instead of Tuesday. In the paradise he constructs for each audience member, the names of the days don't seem to matter.
With the air muggy and sometimes suffocating, Mr. Buffett strode on stage with his band right at his 8 o'clock showtime, barefoot and dressed for a casual, tropical event, maybe a small island get-together. He began with "One Particular Harbour," which immediately made good use of the steel drums and bongos for some tropical flair.
After the introductory song, Mr. Buffett established his trademark connection with the crowd, chatting as though the largely middle-aged audience was just an old friend who stopped by for a margarita. "I'm glad you all made it in!" He told the crowd, referencing the quagmire of traffic that was still trickling into the parking lots. "We got a lot of business to get to tonight!"
With that, he flowed into the suitable "You'll Never Work In Dis Bidness Again," swapping lyrics to reference Pittsburgh bars (with noticeable response). Then, as the beach balls -- a staple for any Buffett concert -- were launched around, inevitably collecting on stage, Jimmy led his band through "The Weather Is Fine, Wish You Were Beautiful."
If he is a master at anything, Jimmy Buffett is almost unparalleled in creating a relationship with his audience. In a way that you don't even consciously notice, he talks to you during the songs, with little quips and observations that might be part of the song or maybe not. Either way, he's having fun, and it's hard not to get caught up in his cheer.
After a few more songs, including a few slower ones better suited for swaying, Mr. Buffett played "Knee Deep," a faster, country-inspired track that he wrote with the Southern favorite Zac Brown. And after grabbing a ukulele for some skillful finger-picking, Jimmy Buffet and his Coral Reefer Band put on a show with "Volcano," a swinging, Caribbean piece that greatly appealed to the packed audience.
In fact, for all of the Parrotheads out there, the concert seemed to have all of the staples: "Cheeseburger in Paradise," the obvious "Margaritaville," and "A Pirate Looks at 40." The great thing with Jimmy Buffett is that his hits can almost be a sure bet, but with a set list that's close to 30 songs (and more than two and a half hours of material), he isn't afraid to pull out covers like Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" and a tropics-infused "Brown Eyed Girl." And after the crowd-pleaser "Fins," the Lagoon tour packed up, ready to turn the next venue into a temporary island paradise.
Elliot Alpern: firstname.lastname@example.org.