This week, thousands of the fervent Jimmy Buffett fans called Parrot Heads are in Key West, widely known as the cradle of Buffett’s creativity, to celebrate his music and the “Margaritaville mindset” it inspires.

Since I’m a longtime Key Wester who knew Jimmy when he lived on the island, the annual Parrot Head migration elicits smiles and memories. So this “Keys Voices” column looks back at a surprise 2011 concert by Buffett — and his spontaneous comments that revealed an undiminished affection for Key West.  

barefoot Jimmy Buffett Key West

With bare feet and a characteristically laid-back stage presence, Jimmy offered songs and comments that recalled his longstanding affection for his former Key West home. (All photos by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Nov. 4, 2011. “I heard I was in town,” Jimmy Buffett quipped after strolling onstage on Key West’s Duval Street, referencing one of his well-known song titles and the rampant rumors that he would appear and perform.

And perform he did. The fabled singer/songwriter returned to his former Key West home to give a rare surprise concert that delighted some 3,500 “Parrot Head” fans during their 20th annual convention.

Jimmy, whose most successful songs include “It’s Five O’clock Somewhere” with Alan Jackson and the iconic “Margaritaville,” rocked with his world-class Coral Reefer Band for more than 70 minutes — from a stage just steps from his Margaritaville Store and Café.

“This is pretty cool, playing on Duval Street,” Jimmy admitted with a grin at the start of the free concert, which was open to the public as well as Parrot Head conventioneers.

He then launched into a set of 15 songs, most of them inspired by his time in Key West during the 1970s and 80s or mentioning local people and places.

While he lived on the island, Jimmy absorbed its characters, ambiance and laid-back lifestyle, memorializing them in songs that feature Key West locales like Fausto’s Food Palace, the Blue Heaven restaurant, and the Chart Room Bar. He drew on the influence of his Key West home to create the near-addictive tropical mystique that permeates his music.

Among the songs he and the Reefers played during their Duval Street concert were favorites such as “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” “Tin Cup Chalice,” “Nautical Wheelers,” and “Woman Goin’ Crazy on Caroline Street.”

The entire performance was upbeat and lively, with intricate riffs from the Reefers and stellar vocals by Jimmy. The songs were pure classic Buffett — and each one was greeted by exuberant applause from the Parrot Heads lining the street.

Every year, Jimmy’s Parrot Head fans “flock” to Key West to explore the island portrayed in their hero’s lyrics. At the concert, some attendees wore the offbeat tropical headgear that earned them their name, and many sang along as Jimmy performed.

(Parrot Heads, by the way, are a remarkably giving group of people. Since 2002, members of the more than 200 national and international Parrot Head chapters have contributed $46.5 million and more than 3.8 million volunteer hours to local and national charities.)

Jimmy Buffett and Coral Reefer band Key West

Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band performed for more than an hour, offering many of the Key West-inspired tunes that helped establish their signature style.

Like his tunes, Jimmy’s commentary between numbers was rich in references to his Key West memories and favorite spots.

“I’ve had great inspiration and great fun on the streets of this little rock,” he said, “and I appreciate it very much.”

Jimmy mentioned the late lamented Islander Drive-in and former gentleman smuggler Phil Clark, whose life is chronicled in “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” and dedicated “Last Mango in Paris” to Captain Tony Tarracino. The late captain, a bar owner who became one of Key West’s most colorful mayors, was a friend of Jimmy’s whose tales inspired “Mango.”

Jimmy’s deep affection for Key West and the Florida Keys was particularly apparent as he introduced and sang “Migration.”

“Some people fly down here and never go back,” he warned his Parrot Head audience in mock seriousness. “This happened to me, and it may happen to you.”

He then embarked on the song … changing the lyrics near the end to proclaim, “I’ve got a Caribbean soul I can barely control and some Key West always here in my heart.”