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Published: 2003/09/29
by Benjy Eisen

The Phish Report: Summer 2003 ‘Shh…IT’

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Music,
Enclosed you will find the report card for your son or daughter, Phish. While there was some concern at the start of the year as to Phish’s ability to concentrate, I am pleased to report that the band is playing better than ever before in many regards. Throughout July and into the first weekend of August, Phish played with an enthusiasm and abandonment that shows their sudden maturity, while maintaining the childlike sense of adventure that has always been such a huge part of their appeal. Once again, Phish has earned the prestigious Headmaster’s Award. While we are somewhat disappointed that Phish will not enroll full-time this fall, we are absolutely thrilled that they will be playing a four-night run in celebration of their 20th anniversary as a band. Furthermore, Phish’s decision to enroll for a four-night New Year’s Run in Miami, FL has been met with unanimous cheers by the board. Please congratulate your son/daughter on his/her success and enclosed you will find their marks for the summer term.
Summer 2003 Grade Summary
Setlists A-
Consistency B+
Jams A
Newer Tunes A-
Newest Tunes B
Old Tunes A
Festival A
Live Phish A
Average Grade: A-
Report Card:
Setlists: A-
Phish’s Summer 2003 tour was surprisingly consistent with past summer tours, at least in the statistics department. According to ZZYZX’s Phish Stats, Phish performed 159 different songs during the 21-show tour, including 70 one-timers. Phish’s previous three summer tours all boast remarkably similar numbers. (For example, Summer 2000 had 150 songs in 18 shows with 69 one-timers).
As was to be expected, the two most-played songs ("Scents and Subtle Sounds" and "Seven Below," with seven plays each) are newcomers. Also predictably, tied for second most-played are the Phish frontline "David Bowie," "You Enjoy Myself," "Down With Disease," and "Chalk Dust Torture."
Since their return to the stage, Phish has done an admirable job of making sure that each show is layered, with songs from the current rotation mixed in with genuine rarities and, commendably, with songs that haven’t been played since the hiatus. Every single show this summer featured at least one song that hadn’t been played yet on the tour, and most of the shows featured at least one song that hadn’t been played live in years. Eight shows featured at least one world premiere.
This means that setlists were consistently enviable and collectable, and few shows appeared disposable (on paper).
Consistency: B+
As is the trend with post-hiatus Phish, the question isn’t whether or not the band is having an "on night." The question, more often than not, is if they’re having an "on song." Precision-guided versions of one song were sometimes followed by trainwrecks of others. Glorious jams sometimes followed mid-set disasters. And then there was Raleigh (7/27). The worst Stateside "Ya Mar" ever followed the worst "Runaway Jim" ever. Granted, Gordon was sick with the fever, giving the band a legitimate excuse for a forgetful show. But, thanks largely to Trey’s compensatory oomph, the night still had some of the tour’s best jamming and took a remarkable turnaround. Thus, every night had something to brag about. But these moments often preceded or followed less glamorous renditions.
Jams: A
Some say Phish is jamming better than ever. Others say the jams are nowhere near what they once were. One thing is clear: Phish is jamming differently than they ever have before. And in the world of jambands, where bands are supposed to make damn sure that every night is different or else suffer chat-room bashing, different is good.
The new jams are textural, building on ideas from Phish’s Summer 1995 tour (which featured what, at the time, fans called "spamming" space-jamming). Thematic elements from Phish’s epic Summer 1993 tour were also present, as were some decorative forays that resembled the Fall 1994 monster jams (specifically some of the "David Bowies" and "Tweezers" from that tour, revamped here in "Pipers" and "Twists").
Always quite the performers, Phish polarized these new school jams with bouts of classic "this-one-goes-to-eleven" jams, such as the first night of Shoreline (7/9) and the second night of Camden (7/31).
Newer Tunes: A-
"Newer tunes" entail tunes that are post-hiatus, pre-summer. Shockingly (and unfortunately for many Phantasy Tour players), Phish already bagged "Walls of the Cave" from its first-string rotation. Performed just four times this summer, the tune has progressed some from the February tour, with minor changes in emphasis and a few other, likely subconscious, advances. Summer versions tended to be straightforward powerhouses, and while we’re still waiting for a seminal "Balls to the Walls of the Cave," the tune has survived its inaugural season and is now a part of the team.
Also returning is "Waves," which still has yet to really yield surf-worthy waves (although the ambient post-Waves jam from IT was certainly crazy). Keep this tune as is and it’s a welcome addition to the repertoire. Ride it out, you know, catch a few real waves with it, and it could be the next "Piper."
A similar statement could be made about "Mexican Cousin." Performed but twice this tour, if Phish continues to expand on what they did with it in Atlanta (7/26), then "Mexican Cousin" could easily settle in as the go-getter set-closer.
Meanwhile, "Seven Below" is the tour’s point winner. Phish amended the ending (in stand-alone versions) with a "My Friend, My Friend" / "Steep"-like finish, but that went almost unnoticed compared to the song’s turnaround as a whole. With little exception, the "Seven Belows" from this tour were hitting balls clear out of the ballpark, with sexy, steamy soundscape jamming.
Newest Tunes: B
Clearly the winner here is "Scents and Subtle Sounds." Not only was it played more than any other tune, but by the middle of the tour Phish was already experimenting with it. The experimentation officially began with a 21-minute version at Deer Creek (7/23) that nearly doubled the song’s length, even if it didn’t quite double its enjoyment. The length was further stretched to a full half-hour at Camden with slightly more interesting results. Sure, neither one quite justified the length yet, but signs are there of epics to come. Of course, Phish could just as easily take older songs that are a little bit more riveting in their composition and lyrical content (such as "Theme from the Bottom") and spend their energy energizing these, but seeing as how "Scents" is the newborn favorite, it’s headed in a good direction.
Of the nine new tunes (including "Mock Song" which made its recorded debut on last year’s Round Room), four of them are crossovers from Trey Anastasio’s band. All four worked well in that set-up, and most of them made successful transitions. "Discern" and, despite its bad rap, "Spices" are both very promising. So is "Mr. Completely," which was curiously only played in Utah (7/15). For its sole rendition, "Mr. Completely" provided the meat for one of Phish’s most noted sets of the summer, and the only sandwich-and-segue fest of the tour.
The oft-played "Two Versions of Me" is neither here nor there, although it is admittedly catchy. "Spread it Round," however, shouldn’t be spread anywhere at all, for it is diseased…although, despite the title, not exactly contagious.
("Secret Smile" and "Army of One" are both nice and pretty and such.)
Old Tunes: A
"Chalk Dust Torture" is born again, now that they’re jamming the fuck out of it in new and exciting ways. This trend began during the 2003 Hampton run, but didn’t really take off until this tour. Virtually every "Chalk Dust" from this tour is a keeper, which of course is the exact opposite of the expected outcome. No longer a standard write-off, the "Chalk Dust" evolution led to a revolution at IT and the 25-minute monster that was unleashed there. The simple difference, of course, between bad and good is that now they’ve added a legitimate jam to what once was the most overrated standard-issue tune in Phish’s repertoire. If Phish only gave this treatment to some of their other old standbys ("Character Zero" for instance) they’d end up with more of the same fantastic results.
Topping the long list of standouts from this tour are "Twist" and "Piper." Both tunes are from the same song cycle (debuted in Ireland on the same day: 6/19/97) and both are enjoying new life as primary vehicles for Phish’s new school of soundscape jamming.
"You Enjoy Myself" was also fairly exceptional this summer. None of the six versions broke any new ground, but Phish’s signature song still puts the fire on the ice. And, following the well-publicized Hampton YEM disaster, the band has steadily improved their precision playing in the composed section. It’s not where it was in 1993 of course, but then again, neither is Phish and neither are you.
"Ghost" also had a refreshing run this tour, as did "Taste" which might just vie for the most improved song (due to its newly invigorated jam) alongside "Chalk Dust Torture."
And although the 1995 decision to drop the "I feel good!" (and sometimes the entire ending) of "Harry Hood" was the last time it changed significantly as a song, Phish has upped the ante once again with two extended versions this tour. A subject of much debate, Charlotte’s (7/25) 29-minute version twice as long as a typical rendition may not be the "best ever." It is, however, still an exceptional one; despite some lulls, just the very fact that Phish is willing to experiment on an otherwise guided tune is encouraging and leaves future possibilities wide open.
"Tweezer," and "Maze" all suffered from uninspired versions, while "Down With Disease" and "David Bowie" had stellar runs but nothing more than what’s to be expected from the two all-star bad boys (check out the Alpine Valley 7/18 "Dw/D").
"Wolfman’s Brother," although exempt from Phish’s Summer 2003 extensions (see "Piper," "Twist," "Harry Hood"), all had engaging and vastly different, shorter jams. First person who can pinpoint when Phish added the "Shirley Temple do it again" refrain gets a gold star.
Similar to the "Wolfman’s" situation, the perennial Phish favorite, "Bathtub Gin" had some phenomenal moments. The band only played three versions this summer and none of them were show centerpieces, although two out of three were show stoppers in their own right Charlotte’s (7/25) and Shoreline’s (7/09) are absolute jaw-droppers.
All in all, most of Phish’s old faithful standards that returned to the line-up have changed and/or improved significantly. But funny enough, Phish is still fucking up "Caverns." All of them.
(Note: Additionally, many of the band’s secondary tunes are still suffering from post-hiatus rust).
End-of-Tour Festival: A
Phish returned to Limestone and brought with them all the things the Limestone fests were known for in the past namely, a Phish fantasy-land where dreams are indulged as reality and reality is, well, dreamy.
"A short drive from anywhere" (as Phish advertised for the Great Went), Limestone’s biggest drawback might also be its biggest advantage: location. 400 miles north of Boston, and without a convenient, major airport nearby, getting to and back from Limestone can take twice as long as the time spent on-site. In fact, while the festival itself was two days, most out-of-state fans spent between five and six days in Maine. Unfortunately, at least one of these days was spent stuck in traffic really. Traffic jams (not the good kind of jam) were reportedly as long as 20 hours during their peak.
Once inside, however, cares had a way of disappearing. And whereas in the past Phish’s actual festival sets were often standard run-throughs of the greatest hits, each set at IT was performed as though Phish was performing in a half-empty arena in Utah. That is to say, they took enormous chances (almost all of which paid off), they honestly didn’t worry about the setlists, and they relaxed up there, letting the music take them rather than trying to prove something to the audience. Mistakes were made, sure, but without the mistakes you can’t find the treasure. Phish found the treasure.
The band’s front office, meanwhile, has said that Phish spent a considerably larger amount of money in producing IT than they have for past festivals. GOOD! It paid off! "Sunk City" was by far the most fantastical and memorable festival installation yet and the interaction between everyday fans and hired artists was at an all-time high. The carnival rides, food village, and other additions that Phish and Great Northern Productions provided were fun, as usual, and the laid-back, hands-off security was such a contributing factor to the overall success that it cannot be overstated. I would like to suggest, however, that if Phish spends even a penny more on the next festival they take that penny and put it towards getting even more port-o-lets and tipping the port-o-let cleaning crews so that they do a better job. The bathroom situation neared a public health concern at many points and was perhaps an even bigger drawback than the traffic.
As for the band’s air traffic control tower set (dubbed "Great Gag in the Sky"), if you were there, you saw it and will never forget it and if you weren’t there, well, I feel sorry for you. It was even better than your friends told you it was.
Live Phish: A
The greatest addition to the Phish universe since Chris Kuroda, or at least since the creation of the in-house festivals, Live Phish has revolutionized the way we listen to Phish. Does it cost us money? Sure. Is it worth it? Absolutely. And the greatest thing is that, against all predictions, tapers still exist, high-quality aud’s still circulate (some reportedly even in the form of matrix mixes), and fans have sunk into a pattern of purchasing key shows while trading the audience versions of others. I love the tapers, and I still love the way audience recordings sound, but I’m telling you if you have the money, just purchase the entire damn tour through Live Phish. God bless the tapers and all but long live Live Phish (and of course, you know, live Phish). Correspondent, Benjy Eisen, listened to every note from the tour in researching this article. And it only made him want to hear MORE.

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