This month marks the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Summer Tour, which saw Phish trek across America – their last to properly span both coasts. A tour that blurred the lines of their overall 2.0 legacy, it also displayed a band – 20 years deep – pushing their music far into the unknown on a nightly basis. A year, and a tour that was unfairly maligned in many ways as it was happening, few tours have aged quite as well as Summer 2003 has. Much of this is due to the band’s relentless exploration throughout its entirety. Much of it is also probably due to the fact that Phish fans tend to come around on every era the band has played. Enough time passes, even 2009 starts to look like the best year of 3.0. Insipid music listening patterns will do that to a lot of people.
After returning from a two-year hiatus with a sub-par reverse-NYE Run in New York City and Hampton, Phish finally rediscovered their form throughout the two-week-long, LA – NC, Winter Tour in February. Hinting at many of the themes that would come to fruition throughout July, they nightly tore down into the rabbit’s hole in search of any light that could guide them through the unknown. That they often found even more darkness only worked to push them even further. Defined in many ways by Trey’s uncompressed, distorted, and gruesomely dirty tone, their jams took on a distinctly bluesy sound, rife with unrefined psychedelia, which bore little resemblance to any music they’d ever made before. For examples and confirmation, direct your ears towards the Chicago “Simple,” Cincinnati “Gin,” Nassau “Tweezer,” and Worcester “Moma Dance” (among, obviously many, many more jams) each of which displayed the untapped musical mine they’d unearthed throughout the tour.
Stylistically, the music they made throughout 2.0 has been called oxyjamming. Whatever that means. While sure, there are stories that Trey was struggling mightily with the on-again/off-again patterns of a hooked narcotics user, by all accounts, the Summer 2003 tour was a totally sober tour. (Whatever that means.) Are these the kinds of jams that would sedate an oxy-addict in withdrawal? Would one recommend steering clear of the pot and LSD and heading right for the pharmies in order to properly understand the musical mess Phish conjured up in 2.0? I have no idea. I guess the name just sounds like these jams in an abused, disoriented, ominous way that certain words just sound like what they’re describing. Oxyjamming has such a sloppy connotation to it, after all.
These were the first jams the band graced me with as a 18-yr-old noob seeing his first shows. To me, they often sound like the literal confusion I was experiencing in the period between high school and college. For the first time, life appeared both full of unknown potential, and increasingly baleful all at once.
At times it sounds like the band is literally fighting to stay afloat. At others, you’d have thought they were on the fringe of a massive breakthrough. It’s all very convoluted and messy.
Some people take issue with the apparent slop that dotted the band’s typically button-tight classical compositions throughout 2003. This is a fair point, to a certain extent. By all accounts the band re-engaged as Phish without participating in a single focused practice session in almost five years. Age and side project obligations played a part as well, as the band had clearly lost the youthful camaraderie – the whole inside-joke part of their performance – that had served them so well in their ascent from outcasted UVM Dead-cover-band, to regularly headlining MSG, and commanding upwards of 100,000 people to make a four-day trek to the upper reaches of Maine. And yet, while you can certainly find moments of slop throughout 2003, it’s not as if you can’t find numerous incidences of slop, and inconsistent dedication to their time-honored approach throughout much of 1997 – 2000 as well. Taken as a whole, 2003 is clearly the tightest they were as a band throughout 2.0. But, then again, I guess that’s not saying much.
The argument people love to make is that in 1995 – the summer tour in particular, which is the closest amorphous musical brethren to Summer 2003 – the band balanced a precision/energy-based approach within their compositions, while regularly spawning maximalist musical adventures into the far reaches of the unknown. To that point, all’s one can say is: true. But, it wasn’t 1995 in 2003, now was it…
The overall point is, that in the isolated Phishdom between October 7, 2000 and March 6, 2009 – a period wherein only 58 shows were played – that the band was able to tap into whatever connective force was driving them, and muster as many memorable shows/sets/jams as they did in 2003, is as true a testament as any to them as a creative engine. That these shows/sets/jams often coincided with the literal breakdown of both the band’s aesthetic, and their own personal lives only further separates the entire era from everything that else Phish has ever done.
People often complained – many times, rightly so – throughout 2009 and early 2010 that we were experiencing an era of Phish Lite. (Some continue to grouse this same point today, but it’s best to just ignore them.) Essentially saying that the music being created by the band was something of a weak imitation of everything they’d been capable of just eleven and twelve years earlier. Granted, in 2009 they had five years separating them from their last tour – ten from their last year of consistent touring – that was all moot in the face of the fact that the jams – THA JAhhhMS brAh (!!!) – were lacking. Yet, for however justifiable the criticism was in 2009, that the band needed essentially no time diving back into the netherworld when they reemerged in 2003 (technically speaking 2002, but…) is, well, the aforementioned testament.
Perhaps the key to all this inspiration can be found in the loose, late-nite-stoned-laziness of The Victor Disc. But, what was the spurt for that? That’s for another post and another time.
This essay is less here to find the historical roots of Summer 2003, as it is to honor and try to understand what happened throughout the tour.
While yes, 2003 initially received a burst in fan support and recognition in mid-2009, once it became clear the jams weren’t immediately coming back in 3.0. In many ways still, 2003 could take the award for ‘most underrated year of Phish’s career.’ Sure, a completely subjective argument – and one probably not really worth anyone’s time trying to quantify – the point is, that for however misunderstood the 2.0 era is in Phish’s overall legacy – I mean, did Parke Puterbaugh dedicate more than two paragraph’s to it in The Phish Bio?? – it’s home to some of the most jaw dropping, innovative, frightening, fall-on-your-face-failure, moody and introspective elations, and simply, unique examples of improvisation the band has ever engaged in throughout their entire career.
As follows is: Summer 2003 – Through The Jams. Ten jams, tracking the entirety of the tour. Each one signifies the various stylistic dimensions the band was willing to toy with, while also displaying the overall unifying elements that gave the tour its signature sound. That each tour has its own distinct sonic quality should come as no great revelation. Perhaps though, aside from Summer 1995, Fall 1995, and Fall 1997, Summer 2003 just sounds like Summer 2003 more so than most other tours in literally every moment of its existence.
Maybe it was a political message about the decade of war, paranoia and instability we were settling into. Maybe it was a response to all the intra-band issues still unresolved. Maybe it was just the right place and the right time. Whatever inspired them throughout the tour, one thing’s for certain: Summer 2003 stood the test of time, and is more than worthy of yours.
Big thanks to the guys over at www.phishtracks.com for all the links for this piece!
*One quick note about the selected jams — this is neither a “Best Of” nor a “Favorite Jams” piece. These jams were all selected based on my sense of how they display the overall evolution of the 2003 Summer Tour.
“Bathtub Gin” – 07/09/2003 – Mountain View, CA
Three shows into the tour, Phish dropped their first complete set and show, displaying a musical dexterity only heard in glimpses during the tour’s first two shows. With a five-song first set that opened with a sublime “You Enjoy Myself -> Simple,” and a fluid second set that featured a bizarre and scintillating take on “Piper,” the keystone of the whole night could be found at the end of the first set in “Bathtub Gin.” A song that produced a number of top-notch jams throughout 2003 – see, 02/14/2003, 02/22/2003, 02/28/2003, 07/26/2003, and 12/30/2003 – the version from Shoreline may be the most noteworthy. Less danceable than many of its counterparts. Less obscure that other versions. The 07/09 “Gin” is the sound of Phish 2003, the way one would expect to find them when locked in a studio, or mid-soundcheck.
Emerging from the song’s theme with a rollicking dance-beat from Fish and Mike, Trey intends to keep the jam grounded, employing his over-effect’d tone to explore the spaces between Mike and Fish, rather than command the lead, or try to impact the jam with rhythm. Employing the blues/rock riffs that had become so common throughout the winter, the jam neither meanders, nor stays put, nor necessarily takes off. Sure there’s some climax happening here, and a few moments of tension and release – see, 14ish min – 15:45ish – but it’s clear throughout that the band is far more focused on how far they can push the jam, rather than achieving any defined peak.
To this point, the most compelling aspect of this jam comes from 17:56–on when Trey signals a fade from the lethargic groove. Initiating a stoned, late-night, come-down jam, space opens up, and Page’s ambient washes become the central part of the jam. Hinting at the musical landscape the band would explore with far more earnestness in the IT “Tower Jam” and “Waves,” this is a musical space that’s perilously distorted, and yet soothingly blissful all at once. A unique blend of darkness and light, the Shoreline “Gin” is the first real indication we have in July 2003 of a band eager to dive as deep into their improvisation as possible; in constant search of a musical plane that wouldn’t have been discovered had it not been for the experimental dive that preceded it.
“Piper” – 07/19/2003 – East Troy, WI
In what’s perhaps the best year for the red, red, worm – though 1997 and 1999 certainly have something to say about it – the version played at Alpine Valley on 07/19 is neither the best, nor even the most interesting. In the summer tour alone, there are two versions that are more coherent, and more dynamic than this particular version – 07/09/2003, 07/31/2003. Yet, what separates the Alpine Valley version from the rest of the tour, and what puts it on this list, is the similarly subdued – read: peakless – jam that shares distinct thematic ideas with the 07/09 “Gin.”
Peaklessness was an overall focal point of 2003, as the band sought – deliberately or not – to direct their jams into more abstract, open soundscapes, rather than groove on a few themes while building towards some all-inclusive “big bang.” Many of the best jams of the year flow with seemingly reckless abandonment. Conflicting stews of alternating musical concepts are tossed together, all leading to an often confusing, if not incoherent, period of wading through the ideas tossed at the proverbial wall, before one is loosely latched onto until the next moment of musical amalgamation. Perhaps the jam that most displays 2003’s union with Summer 1995, the 07/19 “Piper” is more about the journey of the jam, than any sense of destination.
If there is any moment of full-band-connectivity, it comes from 12:01 – 14:05 wherein which Trey brilliant employs his Tremelo effect over a sturdy support system from Mike, a top-of-his game, abstractly holding-a-driving-beat, Jon Fishman, and Page littering the entire section with ascending and descending scales of complying melodic and dissonant passages. Yet once they discover this moment of unified jamming, they dive head-long back into the swamp, surrendering the last 10-odd minutes to soupy, psychedelic-driven-mayhem. Akin to a Fall 1997/Island Tour jam gone mad, there are moments where it feels like if the band just willed it, they could hook-up and discover transcendence – see, 20:55 to the end.
And, yet, that’s not the point of the 2003 Summer Tour. Less was the band in search of the simplified moments of ubiquitous groove that defined their 1999-2000 period, which directly preceded the hiatus. Instead here, the whole goal is the depth of music discovered. Often times, in jams such as the 07/19 “Piper,” this search yielded few tangible rewards. And yet, this was a band undeterred by the potential of falling on their faces. Like so many of the jams that needed large swaths of muddingly tedious experimentation to discover bliss, the tour itself needed a host of jams akin to the 07/19 “Piper” to overcome both their fears of the unknown, and prove that even if the band didn’t always come across brilliance, the rewards of simple exploration were more than worth it.
“Harry Hood” – 07/25/2003 – Charlotte, NC
The much-revered Phish classic – capitol C – for it’s historical legacy, consistently transcendent versions from 1993 – 1996, and emotive peak that is often positioned as cap to whatever show it appears in, in 2003, the band regularly took “Harry Hood” where it had rarely even hinted at going before. While yes there were some truly captivating exploratory versions throughout 1997 – 08/14/1997 and 12/30/1997 immediately come to mind – you’d be hard-pressed to find a single traditional version of the song played on the 2003 Summer Tour. (The lone example comes as the second set closer to a 07/13/2003 Gorge show that, quite frankly, needed the warm and comforting familiarity of “Hood” after the psychologically destructive “Seven Below” that preceded it.) Perhaps out of a need to shake things up, maybe out of bordem, maybe out of an innate desire to fuck with their trusty old friend, 2003 – and to a large extent, 2004 – featured a stunning variety of lengthy, Type-II takes on “Hood.”
The jam in question is, in my humble opinion, the most interesting, and most diverse of the Type-II “Hood’s.” Granted, one could make the argument that the 07/18 version, which sticks closer to the “Hood” theme, while still breaking new ground, or the 07/31 version which is an overall tighter take on the sprawling jam are better representations of the extended “Hood,” there’s just something to the uncompromising endless push of this version that just resonates with me.
A sublime post – “Thank you Mr. Hood…” section is highlighted by particularly gorgeous piano work from Page, until, at 10:16 Trey finds his way out of the theme through at jarring chord, before backing off and allowing the band to shift downwards. Yet it’s at 12:10 where things really move in a totally opposite direction as Trey forcibly imparts an aggressive rock structure into the jam. Note Page throughout the jam, as his response to this somewhat abrasive decision is to paint a wall of keys behind Trey’s impatient lead, creating the ideal cushion for the jam’s immediate shift. That they find a unified moment of connection is a miracle; the segment from 15:54 – 16:53 is some of the most hooked-up Phish you’ll find in all of 2003.
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about the jam is – music aside – the simple fact that it’s reminiscent of the messages the band sent to their fans with their sprawling jams in June 1995, and their slimmed-down setlists in 1997. Here, in 2003, they’re indicating a willingness to jam any/all of their songs. That their taking such liberties with one of the emotionally coveted songs in their catalogue is all the more bold. I think, in many ways, this was the overall issue many fans had with the band from 2009 – 2011. That lack of aggressive dominance and willfulness over their catalogue had seemingly disappeared.
Ultimately resolving itself in a less-than-satisfying peak off the rock-based jam they’d been toying with through various themes over the past few minutes, the jam spends its last 3ish minutes in a realm of directionless abstract noise before somehow finding the closing peak of the “Hood” jam. (Seriously, listening back, one has to wonder how the fuck did they actually rediscover “Hood”???) A more confounding piece in many ways than even the 07/19 “Piper,” the 07/25 “Hood” shows what happens when a band cares little about the emotional rewards of paying customers, and instead, treats a mid-tour-jam as if they were locked in a room, tossing potentially meaningless ideas at each other. It’s both brilliantly important, and absurdly infuriating all at once.
“Crosseyed & Painless” – 07/29/2003 – Burgettstown, PA
If one were to rank the best jams of 2003, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more enthralling, resolutely satisfying, or unanimously praised jam than the “Crosseyed & Painless” from Star Lake. After littering Set I with nine-straight bustouts, that Phish would open the second set of their one-night stop in Western, PA with a song that had only been played three times in the previous six calendar years was enough to push the show into untapped territory. That the jam that emerged contained nearly 22-minutes of the most connected, unified, and determined improvisation of the year was the kind of thing that only happens in the historically brilliant moments of Phish’s career.
From essentially the moment they leave the structure of “C&P,” the jam is distinctly more focused than literally anything else played throughout the tour. And, yet, for however determined and hooked-up the band was, they sacrifice none of the exploratory zest that had thus far defined the entire summer. Led by the tour’s MVP – Jon Fishman – the jam turns on a dime at 6:20, leaving the Latino/North African sway of “Crosseyed” for something more electronic and post-modern. Like a cross-breed between the infectious grooves of the Funk Era, with the distorted and grungy hangover-rock of 2.0. With a plethora of ideas coming from each member, there’s none of the meandering psychedelia from the majority of the tour to be found. This is vintage, locked-in Phish. In the pocket; unprecedented in 2.0
So, why include a jam that so clearly deviates from the unified sound of the tour?
Because, this jam in many ways displays the total worth of the band’s relentless exploration throughout July. Were it not for all the moments of wandering experimentation, who knows if the band would have discovered such a stream for the kind of unified dive down into the rabbit’s hole they took with this “Crosseyed.” And yet, perhaps the imagery of them diving into the rabbit hole is purportedly incorrect. There’s something heavenly about this jam that’s just not present throughout the entire tour to this point – save for the 07/22/2003 “Gumbo.” It’s as if all the darkness that’s surrounded the preceding jams has led to a spiritual awakening within the band, thus guiding them away from the underworld they’d been so insistent upon residing in. This impact of the melodic, the positive spirituality, the salvation rather than damnation, is perhaps never clearer than in the moment when they band loses momentum and direction from 10:48 – 10:58, and yet, as if they’d planned it all along, discover a completely new, totally untapped, essentially more rewarding musical landscape to play around in.
This, the same band who two days earlier bickered an entire show away.
That this jam features easily the most assured playing from Trey throughout the entire tour is not for nothing. There’s a clear break from the tour that came before, and the remaining five shows, and there’s no coincidence that the brilliance of the Camden and IT shows are directly correlated to the whole-band exploration within the 07/29 “Crosseyed.” Seriously, in some ways this jam sounds like the prelude to everything achieved in the Dick’s “Undermind” and “Chalk Dust.” It’s the kind of jam that makes you wonder what could have been had the bottom not fallen our for Trey.
The peak that begins in earnest at 12:03 and lasts until 14:39 is easily the most celebratory piece of music they’d played thus far in the tour, and a direct building block to the massive “Ghost” five nights later. That they still had twelve minutes of quality exploration left untapped after the peak just goes to show how hungry they were for the unknown in 2003.
16:21, another instantaneous change. From the aggro-groove-rock that defined the previous five minutes, to a more subdued, melody driven jam. There’s simply no time in this jam for the band to become lost. Even when they meander, as they do throughout the jam’s final ten minutes, none of it feels unnecessary, nor forced. It’s one of those jams where they’re simply playing the music they’re supposed to be playing when they’re supposed to be playing it. One idea emerges and the band follows suit, exploring it to all its worth, until another member comes up with another. It’s musical democracy in its highest form. That it happened within the vaccum of 2003 is difficult to understand.
Finally at 22:40 we enter the final segment of the jam, as Trey signals with a appropriately placed “Wilsonesque” downstroke that the jam has reached its organic lifespan. The stylistic brother of the 07/30 “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” the denouement is akin to the smoldering coals on a fire. A fade to darkness after so much natural light.
Perhaps part of the reason the 2003 Tour took so much flak is that it took the band until the fifth-to-last show of the tour to produce such a naturally unified jam as the 07/29 “Crosseyed.” And yet, that’s part of the overall brilliance of the 2003 Summer Tour, something that’s increasingly become apparent in the 3.0 era: the band is neither capable of, nor willing to participate in Phish with the same relentless time/energy as they did in the late-80’s/early-90’s. As a result, their leaps forward are more gradual, and a result of more publicized failure than they were perhaps risking early on.
Regardless, they got to the 07/29 “Crosseyed.” That’s the key. The rest of the tour was a run for the ages. Also, it’s about damn time they brought back “Tunderhead” as a landing point for jams.
“Scents & Subtle Sounds” – 07/30/2003 – Camden, NJ
A microcosm for the entire 2.0 era, perhaps no show – aside from 02/20/2003 – received more vitriol immediately following it, only to be reborn as a veritable classic in later years. Coming on the heels of the Burgettstown show, which featured numerous bust-outs the fanbase had been clamoring for, a brilliant jam in “Crosseyed & Painless” and the first “Harpua” since 11/02/1998 taboot, it made sense the first night in Camden would underwhelm. Yet, for whatever expectations fans held about the final stand before IT, it’s clear from the moment the band dives into a monstrous third-song jam off “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” that they intend to use the show as an opportunity to push their music even further.
The lone keeper of the new songs unveiled over the course of the tour, “Scents” spent the first half of the tour locked in a 2-show rotation, wherein which the band focused on the melodic bliss of its post-lyrical “Hoodesque” jam. On 07/23 however, they opened the show with it, and, feeling inspired, took it on a 20-minute journey before resolving it in “Theme From The Bottom.” Not seen in seven days, when they initiated the new-agey preach for spiritual enlightenment, the depths of its musical expansion was really all the band could focus on.
A lethargic, yet still beautiful – in the way that only 2003 songs could be – composed segment led to the jam’s initial movement. Though, just watching the YouTube clip of this jam, it’s clear Trey is eager to get the band into the unknown. A signal to both Mike and Page brings an ominous tone of darkness to the jam at 8:15. What’s clear about the jam though, is that, once they fully push beyond the “Scents” theme, they’re as locked in as they were the previous night during “Crosseyed.” The jam ebbs and flows with organic (un)precision, each member offering an idea that fits the puzzle as it constructs itself. Far more seedy than the spiritual awakening of the “Crosseyed,” the “Scents” finds Phish toying with the under-worldly, and brooding concepts that had overtaken their music in 2003, yet doing so without the meandering, soupyness that had so far defined it. This is a band fully focused on their goals, diving deep into the dark matter of their music, and crafting brilliance.
Yet for as focused or democratic as the band is in conducting their jam, up until around 15minutes in, its clear this is not the music you play in a live concert. (Not to mention the music you play three songs into a show.) There’s a late-night sludge to the jam, a stoned-haziness that sounds like a direct-link between The Victor Disc from eight months earlier. It’s as if there’s no one watching, or pressuring the band. The weight has been lifted, and it’s abundantly clear that all the time spent simply pushing their music further and further – for the sheer sake of pushing it – has resulted in a musical clarity, and an organic conversation that couldn’t have come about without said experimentation.
A period of downtempo, contemplative rock highlights the middle part of the jam from 18:23 – 19:59. Then, at 20:01 Trey finally settles on hazily beautiful tone and theme, building the jam towards a sustained peak that only relents at 24:06.
Dedicating the final five minutes to the same murky, and foreboding music that brought “Crosseyed” to its resting point, the jam dissolves organically; a proper cap on the entire journey. They’d reached a point in the tour where their jams breathed with new life until, there was no more life. That the final five minutes are often as horrifying and jarring as they are, only speaks to the musical outskirts they’d trekked to. Displaying both the full worth of their improvisational exploration, and the command they had over their communication, and their music, the Camden “Scents” is one of those jams that just could only have happened in the Summer of 2003.
“Twist” – 07/30/2009 – Camden, NJ
After achieving such musical brilliance in the first set “Scents & Subtle Sounds,” Phish opened the second set with a muddled, tedious, bewildering, and ultimately transgressive jam off a song that’s seen its fair amount of them: “Twist.” Whereas the “Crosseyed” and “Scents” that came before it produced organically-driven music, where untapped landscapes appeared effortlessly, there’s simply nothing subtle about, when, at 7:00 into “Twist,” the band nosedives straight into Hell.
A maddeningly bleak jam ensues, defined more by a unified swamp of noise, than any forward-progressing music. This is a wall of sound being built, rather than a journey being undertaken.
Returning to the core of abstract psychedelia that had defined much of the tour, the “Twist” at times feels like a statement made in opposition to the successes of the “Crosseyed” and “Scents.” It’s as if the band – acutely aware of their tour nearing its end – is actively trying to become uncomfortable once again. The jam becomes a dizzying swirl of noise, and reaches points of chaotic experimentation that has a direct correlation with June 1995.
All of a sudden, at 12:05, an industrialized pattern begins to emerge. The drumming becomes sparse, the piano and guitars take on a more polyrhythmic feel. It’s like nothing that has been played since perhaps the 07/18 version of “Twist.” They’ve broken through again, and in doing so, have found a key in which to push their music even further in the tour’s waning days.
Back to the swirling descent into Hell, the jam becomes the full-band conversation that had been ever-present in the “Crosseyed” and “Scents,” only here, the focus is less on letting the music carry them, as it is they who are actively pushing the music forward. That they’d found such communicable brilliance in the two aforementioned jams resulted directly from the fact that they, as a band, surrendered to wherever the music would take them. It’s so clear though throughout the “Twist,” that it’s them as a unified group who are doing the controlling.
And yet, for however they try to infringe upon the organic nature of improvisational music, they’re powerless to the plane of musical bliss they reach at 18:07. That they find a light at the end of the tunnel of dizzying madness is a remarkable feat. Proof once again of the total value in their experimentation. A concept we’d see put into practice in two more standout jams from the tour, the Camden “Twist” only furthered the musical renaissance of 07/29 – 08/03/2003. That it did so by going so totally against the grain of the two best jams of the tour thus far would help to lead to the unprecedented musical brilliance found at IT.
“Waves” – 08/02/2003 – Limestone, ME
Few songs appear ready to be jammed as did “Waves” when it first debuted on NYE 2002. Perhaps the most Dead-like song the band has ever written, “Waves” both fit the downtempo feel of the post-hiatus era, and was recorded as an open-ended jam to close out Round Room. Thus when eight months later, it had failed to produce a single version that traversed beyond its structure, many wondered if the band was simply unsure of what to do with it.
In the midst of the most fluid set of the IT Festival, the band finally delivered the “Waves” everyone had been waiting for.
For a song that musically just sounds like standing on a beach in the NW as clouds gather and grey waves swirl in front of your eyes, and lyrically referes to a loss of control, and a sense of peace being found under the water, the jam that ensued on 08/02 combined both of these sentiments in one unified and mesmerizing experience.
I know I’ve tossed around the term unprecedented a lot here in this essay, but, seriously, is there any precedence in the 2003 Summer Tour for the IT “Waves”??? So much of the sound of the summer was based off of a muddled drive forward into the unknown, led by Fishman’s expansive rhythms and Trey’s grungy tone. Yet, this “Waves” is the sound of a band just there. It’s like they’re just residing in space. It’s so ambient. It’s so patient. It’s so unified. It’s so much a peak moment of the band’s entire career.
It’s as if all the sounds, all the jams, all the hours spent wading in unknown perdition have led to this moment of absolute clarity, focus, and presence. You can’t even really say they’re focused though, because it all sounds so effortless. They’re just there, playing, because they’re there playing.
It’s also a moment that’s so bittersweet for any Phish fan. It’s such a clear peak moment for the band – really, the entire IT Festival was one enormous peak for 2.0 – and yet, it was all so unsustainable.
As the IT “Waves” and the three jams that follow each show, no matter how sober, how unified, or how focused the band may have been in the Summer of 2003, the jams that were produced were a clear result of demons surfacing from within. In the context of their history, these jams make complete sense when one accounts for the personal trials of each member.
A singular moment of clarity within the 2003 Summer Tour, the 08/02 “Waves” sounds nothing like the band in Phoenix on July 7th, and exactly like how Phish has always meant to sound all at once.
“The Tower Jam” – 08/02/2003 – Limestone, ME
When Phish followed their 08/15/1998 Lemonwheel show with a candlelit Ambient Jam in the style of Brian Eno, it was both the culmination of the minimalist style they’d been toying with since Halloween 1996, and a self-conscious decision to focus more on Ambient jamming.
When Phish locked themselves in a USA Storage Unit on the night of 07/02/2011 and went on to shock their fans by playing an entire set of uninterrupted space and noise, it was a revolutionary step forward in the 3.0 era.
“The Tower Jam” from IT is somewhere between those two extremes. In many ways it sounds like the culmination of the muddying, hypnotic, everything-in-the-pot-stew that defined the improv of that summer. At other times, its a statement on how much further, how much deeper, how much more the band could take their music. It’s like an amalgamation of everything the band has accomplished up to this point, and how much further they could go. It feels like a rebirth in places.
Aided by the visual effect of the fiery traffic control tower re-awakened after years of inactivity, and the added psychological mind-fuck of the sheer remoteness of Loring Air Force Base, the fact it was the middle of the night, and the history of UFO activity that has dotted Limestone, ME’s past, the jam takes Phish’s music to places it simply can’t go in a standard rock concert environment.
The entire jam is an unravelling work of art which must be listened to in full, and truly, any written breakdown of it would be an injustice. Just know that this is a moment in Phish’s history that deserves your full, unyielding attention. It’s the sound of a band exploring the inner reaches of their mind and soul, and also discovering, after twenty years, just how much more they can do with their music.
That the band would only play 25 more shows between here and 03/06/2009 is an absolute tragedy.
“Ghost” – 08/03/2003 – Limestone, ME
The celebratory roar to the “Tower Jam” and “Waves” deep and expansive masterpieces the IT “Ghost” is home to both the most massive peak throughout the entire 2003 Summer Tour, and the largest glowstick war that’s ever occurred at a Phish show. Seriously, just listen from 8:03 – 13:47 and try to resist dancing.
It’s in many ways the lone gunslinger of the tour. It’s got the arrogance and the balls that the “Crosseyed” did, plus dedicates its final 10 minutes to the kind of murky exploration that defined much of the tour. It’s that unification of styles in such a blatant way that works, even as it doesn’t
You could certainly make the argument for the fact that it’d be far more pleasing if the jam were to only offer its more refined, rock-based, first half. But isn’t there something to be said for just how far, and how out there the band was willing to stretch, and peel back the layers on this jam? Me thinks so, at least.
There’s this point in the jam, 15ish minutes in, where Trey starts looping a swirling riff over a prodding rock base from Mike, Fish and Page. In that instant, the swirl of noise and harmonic dissonance sounds like the love-child of Summer 1995, December 1999 and Summer 2003. It’s these three eras of defined exploration all meeting in one singular jam.
The IT “Ghost” just feels like the kind of jam that could only happen at a festival, hundreds of miles from the rest of America. It’s so big, it’s so bloated, it’s so free. There’d be no way for the walls of an arena, nor the roof of a pavilion to contain it. Just when you think, around 20:05, that it’s finally reached its breaking point, it discovers a whole new landscape to explore for the next 11 minutes.
The final comedown of the jam is neither totally engrossing, nor really captivating. It’s just there. (Don’t get me wrong, for fans of unyielding noise-ladened jams like myself, it’s pure brilliance. But most people tend not to be…) It’s kind of like the hangover to the previous night’s “Tower Jam.” It’s a statement – much like the following jam – for all that was accomplished throughout the summer. Rules – aside from the aforementioned sobriety – were tossed by the wayside. The only goal was exploration, followed by further exploration.
So what if a jam peaked over ten minutes prior? If the band wanted to follow its smoldering leftovers to the edge of the world, so be it. In this context, that the band would proceed to open their final set of summer with a near-40 minute vomit of unabashed noise and sound is quite fitting.
“46 Days” – 08/03/2003 – Limestone, ME
Is there a single jam in Phish’s extended cannon that both accomplishes essentially everything the band intends it to, and is so resoundingly despised by the overall fan community as the IT “46 Days”?
Following five minutes and thirty-three seconds of toying with the song’s theme, the band dives head-first into the rabbit’s hole, not to emerge for well over 30 minutes. The capstone to an entire summer of relentless exploration, the IT “46 Days” goes further, longer, and deeper than ANY other jam throughout the tour, save, obviously, the “Tower Jam.” Akin to the 11/29/1997 “Runaway Jim,” or the 06/14/1995 “Tweezer,” the IT “46 Days” is a constantly moving organism, wherein which ideas naturally emerge, yet rarely lead to any coherent plane of musical significance. There’s some maddening shit throughout this jam. To experience it live would be to wonder if the band was just fucking with you for the sheer sake of it.
And yet, it’s the fitting denouement to a tour full of unparalleled exploration, the likes of which we simply haven’t seen with as much consistency since. (I guess we did in 2004, but so many of those jams were just excuses to fill time. The 2003 jams had purpose; a goal.) From 11:45 – 16:54 the band resides in a hypnotic, tribal trance that sounds nothing like anything they’ve played before, or certainly since.
Following the systematic destruction of literally everything that had been played since they left the song’s theme, the band discovers one of the most sublime musical passages they’ve ever played. Initiated by Fishman at 22:31, the jam becomes a hazy late-night groove that simply wouldn’t have been discovered without the fifteen minutes of unified chaos that preceded it. It’s like the last five minutes of the 10/31/1998 “Wolfman’s Brother.” After residing in such a nightmarish dimension, the band discovers a seedy and slow blues strut that grooves like nothing else.
The ever present theme of the tour: keep pushing further and further ahead/down, and something is bound to emerge out of all the darkness. The said theme carries the band through to the 30-minute mark whereby it discovers barroom rock before returning to the “46 Days” theme. A segment of music that could only have been produced by a band reeling from a month of heady exploration, not to mention six sets of peak performances, it once again proves the worth of all this seemingly senseless exploration throughout the tour.
Closing the curtain on the Summer 2003 tour, the IT “46 Days” was the send-off to one of the most successful, combative, controversial, exploratory, and unabashed tours in the band’s history. That 20 years in Phish was still this willing, able, and dedicated to the kind of exploration, and improvisational brilliance that emerged from the “46 Days,” and the overall tour, is something few bands could ever hang their hat on. The fact this all came immediately following a two-year break, and almost immediately before the band “broke up” is a whole different story.
In the end Summer 2003 is what it is: a moment where the band sought to reestablish the creative control of their career, and in doing so, careened their music off into the unknown, in effort to see what the underworld would offer them. To say it was a successful tour would be an understatement, and, in some ways, a misnomer. The tour confounded many, and elated others. In many ways it simply couldn’t be fully appreciated until it was long gone.