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Throngs of middle-aged Boomers in flip flops, flowing kombucha cocktails, Hawaiian shirts, faux floral leis, and costumes galore—Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville is back and is a sign of a return to normalcy.
In his first full-fledged concert since the pandemic upended touring and live shows last March, the easygoing, beach-loving musician returned to the stage in Delray Beach, Florida, over the weekend and by Tuesday will have played four sold-out shows.
It’s entirely fitting that Buffett and his kooky, loyal Parrotheads have helped kick off a much-anticipated summer of live music, as more Americans become vaccinated and are ready to be part of a crowd again, swaying and singing along to their favorite songs. And it’s even more appropriate that it’s Florida getting the ball rolling.
During the pandemic, the Sunshine State earned the side-eye of many COVID-19 cautionaries, as residents were apt to shrug off the CDC’s mask and social distancing guidelines and largely opened its arms and beachy shores to anyone craving a respite from cramped living situations, crummy weather, and the exasperation of dealing with the pandemic.
So it was slightly surprising to witness The Pavilion at Old School Square put in place social-distancing measures, keeping the venue at a reduced capacity with fewer than 900 people allowed inside the open-air space. Attendees were seated within pods, allowing for up to four people in one gated-off area, complete with foldout chairs. If someone happened to be milling about aimlessly, they’d get a stern but friendly prompt from security to head back to their seat.
Seventy-four-year-old Buffett explained to Billboard he wanted to make a “really concerted effort” to keep his fans safe, ultimately deciding against a Key West location because it was too “sketchy,” citing the potential venue’s volunteer security guards.
Of course it wasn’t all perfect. VIP and event sponsor guests roamed the perimeter of the venue looking for a tucked-away entrance, met by somewhat frazzled organizers who hadn’t dealt with such a high number of attendees in quite some time. Buzzed patrons often ditched their masks and forgot about standing six feet apart while waiting in line for drinks.
Handwashing was much shorter than the 20-second recommendation or flat out skipped as women hurried back to their seats, worried they’d miss a song. The notion of pods also melted away as roaming dancers mingled with their neighbors, despite security trying to keep people apart.
But if Florida is able to pull off a mostly safe and entertaining concert, it offers promise of what this summer holds. For nearly 15 months, deprived music lovers have had to tune into virtual concerts, watch smaller acts at drive-ins, or sneakily attend underground raves as they waited for a time they could jam out again in public. After dozens upon dozens of musicians had to postpone or cancel their concerts last year, the global industry reported a devastating loss of $30 billion.
But many have finally announced they’d be hitting the road come summer, including Justin Bieber, Guns N’ Roses, Lady Gaga, Bon Iver, and Harry Styles. Festivals are in full swing, too. Bonnaroo, the Governors Ball, Electric Zoo, Summerfest, and Outside Lands have all announced dates and stacked lineups, with Tame Impala, Billie Eilish, the Foo Fighters, Vampire Weekend, the Strokes, Megan Thee Stallion, Luke Bryan, A$AP Rocky, and Stevie Nicks headlining various event.
Many event organizers have said there will be some form of safety measures implemented at each venue, taking cues from local guidelines.
While obviously concerts are about hearing live performances again, they are also essentially about connection—either to the music or to one another—especially after a period of isolation many have never experienced.
If Buffett’s concert is a marker of what to expect in the coming months, it bodes well. The crowd was giddy to be there, with tickets selling out 10 minutes after going on sale. Fans went into a frenzy when a barefoot Buffett took to the stage and welcomed everyone back. “This is not a Zoom, it’s a real, live show,” he called out to cheers.
The introduction of seats inside the pods seemed like a welcome fixture, as no one had to jostle against masses of bodies while trying to return to their group, or be forced to stand to have a view of the stage. In fact, half the crowd enjoyed the set from their foldout chairs, laughing and socializing with one another with Buffett’s music serving as a backdrop.
While waiting in line, people mingled with strangers—many heard talking about dealing with COVID-19, their future travel plans and overall buzzing about being out hearing live music again.
John, a lawyer in Boca Raton, told The Daily Beast that he’s been attending a sprinkling of small shows in the area and came up to Delray Beach because a friend was a sponsor of the event. Now that he’s vaccinated, he’s ready for things to get back to normal, heading out to Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado to see the Avett Brothers in July, which he says he can’t wait for.
The only divisive aspect of the night were the fenced-in pods, which were mocked on social media in the lead-up to the shows by some fans, who called them “cattle pens” and those abiding by them “sheep.”
Brad Replogle said he didn’t mind the pods because he was sitting close to the stage, but wondered if the experience would have been different if he was further back. “I’m torn on if it’s better,” he explained. “I go to a lot of shows and I love the excitement of that pit crowd. It’s nice being able to sit but that’s an option at most shows if you are willing to be a bit further in the back.”
“I think I prefer the old way and I’m sure the artists do too since you can fit a much larger crowd,” he added.
Longtime Parrothead Kendall Hamilton said she would be attending two of Buffett’s shows, after the long drive from Northeastern Alabama. It was ultimately because of the pods that she decided to make the trip, citing how she had been wary of large events because of friends who had become very sick when they contracted COVID-19.
“I think it was great,” she said. “It’s a great way to reconnect with fans to do it safely. So we’re super excited about it.
But no matter the opinion on how the gig was carried out, by the time Buffett performed his biggest hits “Fins” and his anthem “Margaritaville,” the crowd was on their feet, belting along to the lyrics and dancing, just happy to feel that the trappings of the past year will soon be ancient history.