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Jimmy Buffett’s “I Don’t Know” tour – with a surprise guest conga player – barrel-rolled through Houston Saturday night with 17,000 fans packing the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
Parrothead fans erupted when Buffett announced, “We have a guest Coral Reefer tonight,” and Texans’ All-Everything lineman J.J. Watt came onstage to play conga drums for Buffett’s biggest hit, “Margaritaville.”
Before the show, Watt was hanging out backstage and presented Buffett with an autographed “99” Texans jersey.
Buffett laughed, “Just my size!”
Watt is 6-foot-5, 290 pounds. Buffett, lets’ say, comes up a little short.
The NFL’s rough, tough, back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year is a Parrothead.
“Everybody loves Jimmy Buffett,” Watt said. “I first saw him when I was a high school sophomore in Wisconsin. I’ve been a fan ever since.”
I took a few photos of Watt and Buffett and emailed them to Texans’ president Jamey Rootes. He wrote back:
“Now I’m even more of a Parrothead! I hope J.J. got some longevity tips from Jimmy. Man, he sure has stood the test of time.”
That’s for sure. Saturday night was Buffett’s 21st show at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion. The first time he played Houston was 1974, at long-gone Liberty Hall. A year later, he returned to Liberty Hall. That was the first concert he ever headlined. Over the years, he’s performed in Houston at Southern Star Amphitheater at AstroWorld, the Summit and Compaq Center, and Minute Maid Park.
Earlier Saturday, pavilion president Jerry MacDonald and I were wondering, “What performer has played in front of the most people in Houston history?”
It’s a tricky question. First you have to throw out Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo attendance because 40,000-something season tickets are sold – it doesn’t matter who’s on the rotating stage. And some promoters, back in the old, old days, may have reported “adjusted” crowd numbers. Since Buffett plays Houston almost every year, and always sells out, and has played big venues the past 30 years. MacDonald and I agreed – it’s probably Buffett.
I asked the sun-drenched, Caribbean-rhyming singer how he came up with “I Don’t Know” as the name for this year’s tour.
“We always have a meeting when a tour ends to start planning the next one. ‘OK, now what are we going to do?’ We were joking around, and everybody kept saying, ‘I don’t know.’ It got humorous and we just followed that trail,” he said.
Buffett is letting fans help create the concert set list this year. They can go online and vote for songs they want him to play. The catch: Fans can only request songs that Buffett hasn’t performed live in the past 10 years.
“I’m liking what they’re picking,” Buffett said. “They’re voting for some interesting things. We did ‘Barefoot Children in the Rain’ in Atlanta. I’m still tweaking how to get more of those songs in the show.”
For Houston, Buffett played “In the Shelter,” a song originally recorded in 1971. It’s as far back as Buffett goes.
OK, that’s one song. There are nine songs – the hits like “Margaritaville,” “Come Monday,” “Volcano” and “Fins” – that he has to play or fans would revolt.
How does he pick and choose?
“I can’t tell you that … that’s part of the mystery,” he said.
“Without rehearsing, we can do 105 songs. That gives me a lot of room to move around and call audibles. I still read crowds to see what would work that night.”
Another twist for this year’s tour: a talking cartoon coconut that kibitzes with Buffett throughout the concert. The voice behind the coconut: Jeff Bridges. How’d that happen?
“I asked him, that’s how,” Buffett said. “We’re old friends. The coconut needed a voice. So I asked Jeff and he said yes. Warren Buffett once told me, ‘Ask for what you want, but be prepared for somebody to say no.’ Well, Jeff didn’t say no.”
The most surprising visual of this year’s show: Buffett starts the second half wearing an outrageously loud sports jacket. It’s a cross between a matador’s “chaquetilla” and Porter Wagoner.
It’s a strange fashion statement: sports jacket, T-shirt, long shorts and bare feet.
“That’s no ‘sports jacket,’ dude. That’s a handmade jacket from Manuel the Tailor! Everybody has to have one of those in their performing life,” Buffett said.
Manuel Cuevas has designed stage outfits for the Rolling Stones. He designed the mask that Clayton Moore wore as the Lone Ranger. He put Johnny Cash in black. He created the gold lamé suit and Las Vegas jumpsuit for Elvis Presley. And now he has Jimmy Buffett, the ultimate T-shirt and Hawaiian shirt guy, wearing a jacket on tour.
Nearly five decades of relentless touring have Buffett planning a break.
“I’m not working as much as I used to work. I turn 70 this year, and I’m going to take some time off and enjoy myself. I have some other projects in mind, though. I’ll be doing things and bringing a camera along to take fans places that aren’t so easy for them to get to,” he said.
Finally, is there any venue, any city or country that’s still on his bucket list? Maybe the Pyramids in Egypt?
“The Pyramids don’t interest me. But there is one place that does: Antarctica. There’s a Margaritaville bar at the McMurdo Research Station and, yes, I want to play there.”