Current Issue Details

Buy Current Issue

Reviews > CDs

Published: 2004/01/27
by Jesse Jarnow

Live Phish: 02-28-03 Uniondale, NY – Phish

Phish has made their own economy. The latest three releases to come
skittering outta Burlington represent the three most-downloaded Phish shows
from the band's astoundingly efficient program. In other
words, the fans determined what was released. What, then, made them pick
those shows (February 28th in Uniondale, New York, July 15th in West Valley
City, Utah; and July 29th in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania)? If these three
shows won their popularity because of their performances, it's highly
suspicious, then, that they also feature three striking setlists. The latter
two shows highlight crazy excursions through the band's catalogue of
curiosities, and the former features one very notable tune.

Certainly the fact that the West Valley City show is a generally
terrible performance (featuring a 50-minute debut of Trey Anastasio's
solo workout "Mr. Completely" that goes nowhere sloooooow, and a
performance of "Ha Ha Ha" that was described accurately by a friend as
"played by a band who remembered they once had a song called 'Ha Ha Ha'";
only one of 'em remembers to sing) doesn't present very good evidence that
the choices were due to exemplary playing. Thankfully (luckily?), the other
two shows find the band in more focused moods — reinventing songs with
fresh force, suddenly enamored with their own history, in Burgettstown, and
simply playing great Phish music at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island.

The show at Nassau will be remembered for its performance of "Destiny
Unbound," a song that had achieved mythical status after not having been
played since 1991. The thing is: it's not a major work, and was never
intended to be. That the band themselves considered it inferior (supposedly
because it sounded like a Dead tune, though I could never make out which
one, little help here?) is immaterial. It was Rare, so it was Good. Phish's
performance of it at Nassau is exactly right. "Destiny Unbound" appears
without fanfare as the second song in the first set, envisioning an
alternate present (like watching Jeff Holdsworth play with the band for the
first time in 15 years on their Thanksgiving run) where "Destiny Unbound" is
just another song in the rotation. Indeed, it fits snugly into Phish's early
'90s history, sounding like a low-key forerunner to Rift-era
maneuvers like the sweeping anthemic Americana of "The Wedge" or the country
bent of "Sparkle." With its luster gone, perhaps it can take its spot by
those songs. Why, there's even a wee little jam in there that shows some
nifty promise (like the band's first tentative forays stretching out
"Halley's Comet" after they dusted it off after a "long" four year
slumber in 1993).

But perhaps the real reason that they played "Destiny Unbound" at Nassau was
to use it as a Red Herring marketing device advertising the fact that they
were playing that night with an unusual gusto and that people should
download and listen to what Phish were capable of circa winter 2003.
"Destiny Unbound" is not the highlight of the February 28th show. Phish is.
A word Paul Williams occasionally uses to describe great Bob Dylan
performances is "generous," and that seems a good word to describe Phish on
these discs. They are generous not because they play "Destiny Unbound" but
because they go out and do what they do best for two full sets, with very
little filler.

Listening straight through, the show delights on several different levels,
appealing by showcasing the best of Phish's different approaches to music.
The meat of the gig features three of Phish's heaviest open-ended numbers
("Bathtub Gin" in the first set, "Tweezer" and "David Bowie" in the second),
along with a pair of fine structured jams ("Walls of the Cave," "Harry
Hood"), a couple of Anastasio's best songs ("Horn," "Sleep"), and a
few other surprises. Each number is capable of creating very different
spaces, and each one works marvelously to do that — "Bathtub Gin" pushing
out into a sparkling jam that doesn't just sound as if it could sail off
into the ether, but actually does, "Horn" riding on what is perhaps
Anastasio's saddest melody. That is what those songs do, and – at Nassau – they do it well.

An argument that exists now and will continue for the rest of Phish's days
is one that plagues any band that has weathered more than 20 years of
existence: have they still got it? People will hold up recent songs and
performances to make their arguments. It's instructive to read contemporary
reviews of Grateful Dead performances, published in Relix and
Dupree’s Diamond News, from 1994 and 1995, as the band spiraled
towards their end. Every now and then a performance would be declared superb
and, suddenly, the Dead were "back," though – personal religious experiences
aside – these were mostly gestures of self-comfort. If Phishheads are to
listen critically, these issues should be of note: What is it that makes us
happy – that really makes us happy – about Phish shows? Is it musical
inventiveness? Is it when they play songs that we like? Is it when they play
songs they never play? Can what we like about Phish be measured with
objectivity? These issues are important because it seems that, for once, our
word actually matters. If it's going to define what Phish are and aren't
going to release then we better fuckin' listen. Maybe they'll never
release fan picks again, but – for now – the demographic drives the
localized economy.

Is February 28th one of the All Time Great Phish Shows Ever? I dunno. My
instinct is to say that, at the very least, it's one we're going to be
listening to for a long time – way longer than the Burgettstown or West
Valley City shows – simply because of the presence of "Tweezer" and "David
Bowie." Each song has long been a good barometer of how Phish is doing, to
see what they're capable of on a given night of a given tour. Here, they
make the most of each of them, dropping into delicate jams that highlight
how impossibly intimate those four men can get, musically, while standing in
the middle of a bleeding hockey arena. At their best, of course, no member
solos, each listens and builds a melody around the other three. It's great

The smaller moments of February 28th are fantastic as well. The band
discovers a quietly soaring jam out of Mike Gordon's "Round Room" — a jam
which is great not only because of what it is, but because of what it
suggests (that one of their newer numbers can be surprising, after all,
unlike the fairly predictable wank-build of the first set-closing "Walls of
the Cave"). The "Harry Hood" is also quite nice. Sometime around 1998, the
band forgot how to play songs like "Harry Hood" and "Run Like An Antelope"
the way they used to, the songs losing much of their tension-and-release
momentum. Here, the band plays with the various sections' melodies, breaking
them down and playing with them as if the song's build was merely an
afterthought and that the melodies were the name of the game. The strategy
works wonders because the various melodies of "Hood" are great.

Phish released these shows for the downloadophic. If you're reading this
site and have gotten this far in this review, you've probably traded,
stolen, or maybe even legally purchased this show by now. If you have
already done so, then I will leave you alone with your recording to marvel
at the fact that we can listen to Phish jam in unforgiving soundboard
fidelity. Hot damn, my friends. Hot damn. Fire up the headphones, close your
eyes, relax, and float downstream.

Show 0 Comments