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[Phish.net thanks @andrewrose for this four part reflection on one of Phish's strongest individual tours: Winter 2003. -Ed.]
PART 1: How Is It I Never Saw
02/24/2003 - Continental Area, East Rutherford, NJ
Well another twenty years have passed, but when you track all the days they’re kind of always passing, aren’t they? Anyway the last time I did one of these (when publishing this retro look at Summer 99 and the Meatstick craze), I laid out what seemed like a necessary disclaimer about the pleasures and perils of nostalgia. It’s still relevant, but this time I’d rather skip that, point you to the footnote, and get down to business—because I have some things to tell you and me about February 2003.
So let’s rewind again, this time back a bit further to the sun coming up at Big Cypress. I didn’t know it then but there would be no “PHISH 2000!” for me. That magical clock turning we did in the Everglades was my last show before the hiatus in 2000, and I had gone off that next summer to do the obligatory European backpack tour with my girlfriend. I turned 20 in August 2000.
Now fast forward to February 2003. The band had returned to the stage at MSG just two months prior, and I was itching to get back on the road and see them again. In Summer 2000 we (or I, at least) didn’t know how great we had it, and I didn’t think much at the time of taking a summer off. I had seen a bunch of shows in 1999, and it seemed like we had a long runway of years ahead. By 2003 the hiatus served as a reality check and suddenly there was a sense of scarcity. I was fresh out of college without much responsibility, so me and some friends put in a mail order for four nights on the February tour, starting on the 24th in New Jersey, and ending on Long Island at the Nassau Coliseum on the 28th.
I don’t remember what we listened to on the drive from Montreal to New Jersey, but we didn’t have any tapes of the early stretch of the tour, yet. LivePhish downloads had just launched to coincide with the return to the stage and complement the Dry Goods CD series, but I don’t think I had made use of it yet. To be honest, I don’t remember a ton about that first show in New Jersey, but in retrospect that may be because of just how much space in my mind the rest of this mini tour started to take up as it progressed. In fact, I’d argue that these four shows as a package represent a pretty compelling musical time capsule for the band. Not just for the peak performances that are among the band’s absolute pinnacle—but for the narrative arc they offer, with the story building deceivingly fast and furious, not unlike some of those juicy 2.0 jams. Anyway, we’ll get to all that.
For now let’s revisit February 24th, a show that not a soul would argue as anywhere near the best of these four. And yet... what I do remember about this show is the B.B. King sit-in, and how—once the initial charm of it had settled—it seemed to suck the energy and flow out of the air. If you asked me then, I would have argued the show never recovered either, save maybe a decent Halley’s to open the second set. Imagine too that I was rolling into these shows as a 1.0 Vet (though we didn’t call it that yet). No longer a teenager, either, I was a cocky 22 year old who thought he had seen a lot, and still wasn’t sure the band was going to climb to heights anywhere close to what I had seen in the now fading memory of the late 90s. (Good God, I must have been as insufferable as I was wrong.)
In any case, in preparing for this recap I did a deep dive on these shows. Two of them I’ve been intimately acquainted with for 20 years. But this first one I have to admit, I’ve hardly known at all these two decades. Imagine my pleasant surprise then, to feast my ears on a show that boasts some absolutely scrumptious morsels, which I will lay out for you now, as penance for all these years of neglect.
I don’t remember my feelings at the time, but I must have been overjoyed to see the lights go down again. I suspect my ears then were craving mostly big spacious jams, but I’ll tell you something—they will take this "Down with Disease" to open over a meandering mess everyday of the week and twice on Sundays. If there’s one thing I’d want to convey about these shows out of the gate, and what they say about the band at this particular point in time--it’s that the chops, precision, and sheer power of them was just off the charts, not unlike an era a decade previous around 03-04. You sometimes hear lazy throwaway dismissals of the jamming style or sound from this era that completely neglects this fact. Put on this "Down with Disease" and crank it, and play it side by side with, say, the version from the Clifford Ball, and tell me it doesn’t at least put up a daring fight to the finish. Fishman on the hi-hat at around 7 minutes while Trey gets settled is just mojo-moving magic. Then pow, out with the lick and they’re off, Page banging on top after the first offering while he lays back again. Everyone is cranked to 11 without anything feeling rushed. They don’t need for it to go out to blatant Type II territory to keep it interesting, either. A brief jaunt but really the show here is the way Fish and Trey hook up and blister through and then break it back for the finale. This is a great "Disease."
The band drops Taj Mahal’s "Corrina" in the two slot, a song I grew to dearly love a couple years later but probably didn’t appreciate at the time—and which probably served to foreshadow the sit-in to come. A standard punchy first set "Wolfman’s" evens out the uptempo to downtempo moves so far, and then "Limb by Limb" offers the next highlight worth your time in 2023. There’s more evidence here of the band’s locked-in power, again with Fish almost stealing the show as the jam mounts and Trey is egged on to match as early as 5 minutes. Things get sparser and intricate before they lay it down and introduce B.B. King. One does wonder what might have continued here if the momentum kept up, but really it’s no matter. B.B. King was a legend and I’m glad to have gotten the chance to see him. There is definitely some choice playing (by everyone) in the "Thrill is Gone" and ensuing jam, and if you’re into the blues (and even if you’re not), you’d be poorer for not giving it a listen.
Set two isn’t exactly your five song classic, but there’s a lot to sink your teeth into here, as well. The "Halley’s" to open the set, for example, has some pretty slick late-90s style playing, giving Mike a chance to get up and out front of the sound (something he’d continue to do, culminating with a show-dominating performance on the 26th). I had seen a couple great "Halley’s" in 99 (7/13 and 12/7) and I’ve no doubt I came away from this show at the time pointing to this as the highlight, jam chaser that I was. Dig Page’s spacey effects around 10 minutes and the funky bounce Mike and Fish get going; seeds planted for jams executed to even better effect in the "Ghost" a couple nights later. The jam kind of peters out a bit and sounds for a second like Trey is going to take it into "NICU," but instead a crunchy fog ensues and they land in "Harry Hood." Good play to the intro and through the song proper, then the jam is piano-led by Page, almost too happy, before Trey applies some crunch as if in response. Fish again, with miles to burn in those biceps. The peak approaches and, not content to simply take it up, Trey goes almost dissonant, angry, Mike responds in kind with nimbleness that evens it out, and they bring her home. A brief, but interesting "Hood." I have to say the same about the back half of the "Twist" that follows the "Heavy Things," though it’s hardly brief at 19 minutes. It takes a while to get out of twist-around-land, but at 11 minutes there’s a pulsing off-beat exploration that to my ears foreshadows some of the spacier stuff they’d get up to later in the summer with the Tower Jam and elsewhere. Both Mike and Trey find some pretty unique tones and start playing off each other towards the end of the jam in an interlocking fugue-like style that again, would yield bigger rewards as the tour progressed.
The highlight of February 24th, 2003, twenty years later as I write this, though? It’s the eight and half minute "Waves" tucked there in between "All of These Dreams" and "Sample," "Chalk Dust" to close the set. I don’t have a lot to offer in the way of a magical explanation for this. These songs were new then—"Waves," "Pebbles & Marbles," "Seven Below"—and I argue they’re still among some of the band’s most mature, compelling compositions. Maybe it’s because I feel like they were cut down in their emergent prime, not given those extra two or three years to spread their wings like so many did before. Anyway you could call this "Waves" straight ahead, I suppose, but that would be doing a disservice to the many, many waves these four magicians float through clouds in sunken space, and weave together in such a small space. On the wind, underwater, wherever. Trey leads the charge, of course, but no one is out of step, each meets the other, and they soar, and those waves are still out there to meet your ears, wherever, whenever you are.