By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

April 27, 2009
(Review of concert April 24 at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater)

In many ways, Jimmy Buffett's show Thursday night was typical, from the costumed, party-primed, Parrothead crowd to Buffett's spirited performance of must-play favorites to the contributions of his magnificent, veteran Coral Reefer Band.

But something has happened in the eight years since the mayor of "Margaritaville" — now, unbelievably, 61 years old — last played St. Louis: He seems to have reconnected with the romantic core of his music.

Irony and a kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink edge has often hovered over Buffett's music in concert. But this time, a straightforward, emotional honesty had more than a toehold, especially during a sequence that came late in his "Year of Still Here" show at sold-out Verizon Wireless Amphitheater.

After a sing-along romp through "Volcano," Buffett, a sailor and a pilot, returned to accounts of his round-the-world travels, the show's connective tissue.

He talked about being in Dubai during shore leave for the USS Harry S. Truman ("Five thousand drunken sailors — you don't think that's my crowd?"). And, as he played one of his signature songs, "Son of a Son of a Sailor," he showed video of his visit with the crew and his performance aboard the aircraft carrier, which is serving in the Persian Gulf.

In fact, video served as almost another band member. Far from being merely a way for folks on the lawn to see the stage, the video complemented each song, such as footage of Buffett surfing at exotic locales during "School Boy Heart" ("I got a school boy heart/ a novelist eye/ Stout sailor's legs/ and a license to fly").

And after a poignantly straightforward reading of "A Pirate Looks at Forty," Buffett took the crowd "around the world in 6½ minutes" in picture and song during "Far Side of the World" ("From Paris to Tunisia/ Casablanca to Dakar/ I was riding long before I flew/ Through the wind and sand and stars").

Buffett's superb cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Southern Cross" followed, with a fully engaged crowd dancing and singing along.

In all, the singer-songwriter, whose career is pushing 40 years, delivered a generous 27-song set over two hours and 40 minutes. It spanned his major-label recording career, from 1973's comically randy "Why Don't We Get Drunk" (featuring a cute bit with the sign-language interpreter) and 1974's bittersweet "Come Monday" to the new "We're Still Here" ("I didn't do it for the fame or the fortune/ It was all about the girls").

It's also about the music, thanks to the Coral Reefer Band, which is anchored by former St. Louisans Peter Mayer on guitar, brother Jim Mayer on bass and Roger Guth on drums. The band, 11 strong, brought Buffett's music alive. Every player had a moment or two, from Peter Mayer's stinging guitar solos and John Lovell's trumpet runs, to Nadirah Shakoor's vocals and the entwined playing of pianist Michael Utley and steel drummer Robert Greenidge.

But the best musical moment was supplied by a guest, ukelele wizard Jake Shimabukuro. Accompanied by Greenidge, Shimabukuro mesmerized the crowd with an instrumental take on George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

Buffett's must-plays made their usual appearances, including "Cheeseburger in Paradise," "Fins," "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes" (set to video of Parrothead activity earlier in the Verizon parking lots), "One Particular Harbor" and, of course, "Margaritaville."

His only misstep came during the first of two encores. Buffett has a great track record of picking cover tunes and making them his own, from Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" to John Hiatt's "The Tiki Bar is Open." But his rewritten version of Bob Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 and 35" is not one of them, its "everybody must get stoned" lyric notwithstanding. It just felt wrong.

But Buffett got his mojo back on his closing number, a gentle, solo acoustic reading of Jesse Winchester's dreamlike "Defying Gravity" ("I live on a big round ball...") from 1976.