Jimmy Buffett was in Rhode Island just two months before his death, strumming his six-string guitar during the golden hour at a waterfront venue for 300 loyal fans — a surprise performance that would be his very last, and one that the restaurant’s owner and attendees will remember for a lifetime.
The legendary singer-songwriter died over the weekend at the age of 76, following a yearslong battle with a rare form of skin cancer. His final performance was at the Sunset Cove in Portsmouth on July 2.
“Looking back, you can’t put a price on what it meant to the people that were here,” said Mike MacFarlane, owner of the waterfront café, who was celebrating his 50th birthday when Buffett decided to drop by.
The news of Buffett’s death shocked fans around the country, including MacFarlane, who said the restaurant has seen a flood of “Parrotheads” — a term used to described loyal Buffett fans — visiting from all over.
“We had a couple drive here from Michigan over the weekend,” MacFarlane said. “They had Buffett concert T-shirts on and leis around their neck. They drove here because they wanted to see the final place where he performed.”
The serendipitous summer concert at Sunset Cove stemmed from a friendship between MacFarlane and one of Buffett’s longtime Coral Reefer Band members, Mac McAnally. During a February lunch in Key West, Florida, MacFarlane asked McAnally if he would be interested in performing a solo show at Sunset Cove to celebrate his milestone birthday.
“I said, ‘Hey Mac, I turn 50 this year. Do you want to come to Rhode Island and do a concert on the water?’” MacFarlane said.
One of the dates McAnally happened to be free was on MacFarlane’s actual birthday, “so we set up the concert, and planned on having a Mac McAnally show on July 2.”
Sunset Cove sold 300 tickets for the concert, and on the morning of the performance, McAnally got a FaceTime from Buffett, who was in Long Island “going stir crazy around the house.” He hadn’t performed in a while, and recently had to cancel a concert in South Carolina after being hospitalized in Boston.
“His doctors won’t let him tour right now,” MacFarlane recalled McAnally telling him at the time. “But he’s on the mend. He’s recuperating. He’s feeling good and wants to come up and do a few songs.”
At around 3 p.m., MacFarlane learned that Buffett was on his way to Middletown Regional Airport to perform at Sunset Cove.
MacFarlane was thrilled. He didn’t tell anyone.
“I said, ‘Listen. If we’re going to do this, let’s make sure all these people out here have the best day ever, that they are so surprised.’ We’re not going to let this leak, and we didn’t,” MacFarlane said.
MacFarlane and McAnally picked up Buffett, his daughter, and their pilot in Middletown, drove to the venue, and brought them backstage.
“They spent a little time catching up with Mac and tuning guitars and putting a little setlist together,” MacFarlane recalled.
The concert kicked off with one solo song from McAnally, before he rolled into Buffet’s “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere.” When McAnally sang the lyrics “What would Jimmy Buffett do?” Buffett stepped onto the stage right on cue.
The crowd erupted with cheers.
“The moment was everything I could have hoped for, and then some,” MacFarlane said. “The wow-factor. The electricity. It’s hard to describe, other than truly amazing.”
Buffett performed between six and eight songs, and was on stage for about 45 minutes.
“His energy was great. His attitude was great. He sounded great ... it just seemed like he had every intention of going back on the road some time this fall,” MacFarlane said.
Like so many others, MacFarlane was shocked by the news of Buffet’s death just a few months later.
“It was exactly 60 days prior that he stood on our stage, was backstage hanging out, having fun, laughing, and taking pictures with all of us,” he said. “It just meant so much to so many people.”
Before Buffett’s death, Sunset Cove had plans to create T-shirts with a hand-drawn illustration of McAnally and Buffet onstage, to commemorate the special performance. The restaurant still plans to make the shirts, and all proceeds will be donated to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where Buffett was being treated.
Sunset Cove just opened for business this year, on Memorial Day weekend, and MacFarlane said he enjoyed a summer far beyond what he could have ever imagined.
“Some of it magic and some of it tragic, as Jimmy would say,” he said.