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Published: 2003/03/25
by Benjy Eisen

The Phish Report: Winter Tour 2003

With Phish's Winter 2003 tour now etched into hard drives and MP3 players everywhere, the band has gracefully given us another 36 hours of music to use as a soundtrack for our spring season. After a mildly disappointing and largely disapproved Holiday Run return, the band fought back in February the only way they know how – by being Phish. And true to form, Phish returned true to form.

The band began their 12-date reintegration on February 14, with a set reminiscent of ye olde school Phish. The song choices at The Great Western Forum included a nod to the outside world ("My Sweet One" on Valentine’s Day), an inside joke ("Cover of the Rolling Stone" the week that Phish was indeed on the cover), and a hint at what was to come in the following weeks with an inventive jam that bridged together "Fee" and "Taste," followed by an unforgettable version of "Bathtub Gin." Of course, the tour that came after was delightfully dogged by all of these classic Phish elements. There were inside jokes aplenty, nods, teases, inventive jams, unforgettable versions, and new standards.

While it is tiresome for tour-heads to always have to be explaining to parents and relatives that "each night is different" and "no two shows are ever the same," the fact is that this was getting harder and harder to prove in the years leading up to The Hiatus. Setlists continued to be different but pooled from the same limited group of songs, and imaginative surprises were becoming more and more rare. Perhaps it is no coincidence that boring setlists occurred with greater frequency once the band stopped writing them in advance. Regardless, during the Winter 2003 tour, setlist-wise, just about every night had something exciting, something new, something custom built for the moment. And because there were there just 12 shows for Phish to let it all hang out, the one-offs were everywhere and even old faithfuls became exciting sightings; "Reba," "Cavern," "N.I.C.U.," "Jibboo," "Maze," "Simple," "P.Y.I.T.E.," "Sparkle," "Theme," "First Tube," even "Mike’s Song" were all heard but once this tour. But once! True rarities seemed more significant, while many near-givens were no-shows whatsoever. "Gumbo," "Fluffhead," "Lizards," "Meatstick," "McGrupp," "Curtain," and "Split Open and Melt" were among the many missing. They didn’t play a single "Sand." Understand that, since returning from a two-year break, the songs that did return were cherished, while the ones that didn’t make it were forgiven or forgotten, ensuring that the song-by-song giddiness and anticipation that fans felt all February will be extended into the summer touring season.

The band clearly planned it so that each night had something unique about it, something exciting. In Las Vegas the band pulled out "Reba," followed by a welcomed bust-out of "Life On Mars?" in the first set, first night. Night two was the obligatory segue-show. "David Bowie" went in and out of "Catapult," and "Seven Below" was sandwiched on both sides by "Down With Disease," which also resurfaced in the jam out of "Piper." In Ohio, the band spread "Mike’s Song -> Weekapaug Groove" over two nights in a move reminiscent of modern Bisco. Yes, that was a first for Phish. In New Jersey, the King of the Blues, B.B. King himself, came onstage for a mini-set that included "Everyday I Have the Blues," "The Thrill is Gone," and "Rock Me Baby."

In Worcester the band covered themselves in the first set, as they played one song each from their various side-projects. Mike Gordon and Leo Kottke’s "Clone" and Trey Anastasio’s "Drifting" both made the leap with relative ease (although perhaps missing subtle elements of their original versions). Pork Tornado’s "Blue Skies" didn’t quite do as well. Vida Blue’s "Final Flight," on the other hand, presented Phish with possibly the best chance for a crossover hit.

Oh night of nights: On Long Island (2/28), Phish played "Destiny Unbound."

They also dropped a "Soul Shakedown Party" in the second set. But their playing was so inspired for the entire night that those two stand-alone miracles were all but lost in the praise for the show as a whole.

Most shows also featured at least one rarity and at least one tour one-timer. "Halley’s Comet" was dusted off (with rust and all) in New Jersey, "The Wedge" in Colorado, "Slave" in Philly, "Golden Lady" in Las Vegas, "Corrina" in New Jersey. "Driver," "Talk," "Dogs Stole Things," "Sloth," "Lifeboy," and numerous others also made cameos, spaced with thought and strategy throughout the tour.

But no accurate discussion of Phish’s Winter ’03 tour would be complete without due mention of the rust, dust, and general slop. Miscues were common. Lyrical flubs were a given. Forgotten passages and missed notes were to be expected. What’s worse all of these things were to appear in every show, without fail. Phish may be running down some pretty damn exciting trails suddenly, but their joints appear arthritic and their wheels in need of some pretty serious WD-40. Whereas these complaints ultimately sank Phish’s grand comeback during the Holiday Run, they were but mere distractions on the Winter Tour. Surprisingly, complicated tunes such as "Reba," "Divided Sky," and "Y.E.M." were pulled off with dramatic near-precision. While Phish may never be the well-oiled one-mind Buddha mindfuck of a machine that they were in 1994, in terms of surgical playing, their Winter 2003 renditions of double-diamond material was nothing short of spectacular more often than not. It is quite obvious that the band, possibly embarrassed by such indiscretions as the 1/3/03 "Y.E.M." or "Free," spent a considerable amount of time preparing these potentially troublesome tunes.

All this care and effort may have been at the expense of the givens. At this point in their career, there is no excuse for a brutally sloppy "Suzy Greenberg" or a severely flubbed "Taste."

Indicative of Winter 2003 Phish at large, these mistakes, which ranged from mere blemishes to total disasters, often were followed in the same song by magnificent jamming and jaw-dropping improvisation; and not the bag-of-trick variety, unless of course Phish has a whole new bag. The New Jersey "Twist" (2/24) will be remembered as a highlight of the show. Perhaps even of the tour. The beginning of the jam mimicked Santana’s "Oyo Como Va" and then morphed into an extended dark and evil evolution of the historic Island "Twist" (4/2/98). Out of Phish’s thousands of jams, this is one of those that people will come to know by name. Yet the song itself started off shaky at best, mired by hesitation before spinning a quick cocoon and surprising the hell out of everybody with a most beautiful butterfly.

The Las Vegas "Ghost" (2/15) all but comes to a stop with a major mid-song accident. Yet the jam is majestic, all but ensuring itself induction into the "Ghost" Hall of Fame.

In Philadelphia (2/25), a first set "Taste" got off to an unlikely start when Trey flubbed an entire verse. But the jam that followed turned this first-set standard into a watershed version, where the paved jam path was rerouted with fantastic results.

These single-song transformations, in which Hindenbergs were turned into rocket ships, are what Phish’s Winter 2003 tour was all about. Some songs were blown. Others were blown wide open. Few sets went by where there wasn’t a misplaced song or a butchered section. But not one set went by where there weren’t also whole chunks of beauty, slabs of elegance, globs of jawbusting jams and everlasting gobstoppers.

It’s a new methodology, and one that doesn’t lend itself to "Show of the Tour" debates. If you claim the second night in Ohio (2/22), based on the undisputed one-two punch of "Tube" and "Bathtub Gin" (both front-runners in their class) and a strong "David Bowie," you overlook the "MOMA," "Limb by Limb," and "Y.E.M." of Denver, or the "Maze," "Stash," and "Ghost" of Worcester, which came with a "Y.E.M." opener and no less than four song debuts.

And then there’s Nassau Coliseum, which is another story altogether, possibly as long and as meaningful as a bible…or could it come from the Helping Friendly Book itself?

Surely an entire chapter was written at that show, reflecting on the tour at large, and whether or not Phish wrote the book this time out, or just reread it in its incomplete entirety each night before curtain call, one thing is clear: Phish have saved themselves, and in doing so, have once again reclaimed their jamband throne.

WINTER 2003 TOUR SCORECARD:

SETLISTS: A

Given just a dozen shows, Phish made sure that old faithfuls were dusted off, new showpieces were shown, wild cards were drawn in nearly every hand, and from the tour opener of "My Sweet One" to the "Proud Mary" vocal jam closer, each show had a reasonable element of surprise. Of course, Phish still needs to learn how to encore. As for the cry of too many repeats bullshit.

Sidenote for those vocal few who don’t recognize that Phish have been playing less repeats than ever before: True, Phish repeated two new tunes, "Walls of the Cave" and "Waves," five times each on this tour, but considering that they’re new, that’s a huge cutback from previous debut runs. "Also Sprach Zarathustra," "Guyute," and "Sample" were played virtually every night of their inaugural season. Additionally, on the Winter 2003 tour, two classics were played four times each, but the majority of tunes were played just once. In comparison, a random sampling of 12 consecutive shows from 1994 reveals that two tunes were played seven times each, two others six times each, and a full seven songs were each played five times. But all of this is a mute point the fact is that Phish should have been playing these new tunes even more often. That’s right.

CONSISTENCY: B+

Whereas in the past "consistency" meant the band’s ability to keep it up through a succession of shows, suddenly the concern shifted from one song to the next. Every night without fail landed at least one WMD jam. Every show had a must-hear, a leviathan, an expedition probe that went where no jam had gone before. Some shows had more of these than others, and some nights the must-hears came with expiration dates, little disclaimers that read: "If you need to clear up hard drive space…"

Of course, every show also had noticeable wreckage. That’s something that previously could not be said about the majority of Phish shows, much less entire tours. By the end of each night, however, Phish somehow found a way to redeem themselves, again and again. Redeem? Try surmount, surpass, and prevail.

JAMS: A+

Phish are once again jamming sincerely and sincerely jamming. What’s more, the jams are groundbreaking. They are playing songs, even standbys, in ways that they have never played them before, and there is a new youthfulness in their improvisations, an enthusiasm that had been missing for awhile. No more autopilot their jams have become exciting and unpredictable again.

PERFORMANCE: C

Between the Holiday Run and the Winter 2003 tour, Phish practiced. That is for certain. Tunes susceptible to disasters, you know, the "Reba’s," the "Divided Sky’s," the "Y.E.M.‘s," all were surprisingly in game form. But signatures such as "Rift," "Ghost," and "Suzy Greenberg" suffered from multiple faceplants. Nobody expects Phish to be as concise and tight as they were in the mid-1990s, and mostly for positive evolutionary reasons. But while the band mostly stepped forward into the future, it would be a disservice to ignore their lack of preparedness in an area they may have taken for granted.

NEW TUNES: B+

Phish did as we expected and turned "Walls of the Cave" into a glorious multi-beast complete with "sickest ever" versions and tangible progressions. "Waves" and "Pebbles and Marbles" both have yet to really mature, but it was good to see Phish nurture them and give them chances to step it up. These two are the ones to watch for in the future. And it should go without saying that "Walls" is, well, everything we thought it would be, with the possibility to be even more. The best of the new ballads, namely "All of these Dreams" and "Thunderhead," are also beginning to get comfortable and find their place.

That "Mock Song" still hasn’t been played live isn’t surprising, but that "46 Days" and "Seven Below" weren’t more heavily rotated is. And "Mexican Cousin" hasn’t been jammed or even embraced yet, but there’s still hope for this waiting room gem.

OLD TUNES: A-

Bad news first: they fucked up nearly every song at least once. You’d think it was the first time Phish played these songs. The good news is that Phish also played them like it was their last. "Tube," "Maze," "Llama," "Julius," "Theme From The Bottom," even "Sample In a Jar" and "Chalkdust Torture" were all maximized, rocked out so hard their stomachs were blown open and an inferno flared out from their orifices, even tearing open a new one here and there. Special honors go to "Bathtub Gin," "Down with Disease," "Y.E.M.," "Harry Hood," and "Antelope" who along with "Walls of the Cave," were the tour’s MVPs in turn. Each of these songs had new life to them, renewed spirit, and new school jams inserted into their DNA. And it worked.

Benjy Eisen (benjy@jambands.com) used to write the Phish column for Dupree's Diamond News.

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