[Phish.net thanks @andrewrose for this four part reflection on one of Phish's strongest individual tours: Winter 2003. -Ed.]
PART 3: The Moment the Stars All Turned Around
2/26/2003 - Worcester Centrum Center, Worcester, MA
Alright folks, well if you’ve been skipping class and missed Parts 1 & 2 of this twenty year later trip down Phish-in-February lane, now is definitely the time to sit up and take notice. This is where the memories start to be a little less cloudy for me, and it’s not without reason. Before I dive into the show proper, though, I thought it might be worth sharing a little pre-show memory that could have very easily been nothing but a deep regret.
As previously mentioned, a few friends and I were doing this four show run down from Montreal. And we had the fine idea in our time off between drives, during a stay at a Hampton Inn somewhere, to make a little homemade sign or two. The floor in Worcester was GA, and despite my tickets not being there, I had intentions of getting to it (which I would succeed in doing, spending the show one row back dead center). I had grabbed a piece of cardboard from somewhere and scrawled “Psycho Killer” across it in thick black ink, my bold suggestion that the band bustout the Talking Heads cover that had last appeared in Dayton on 12/7/97. And of course us being psyched about being on (mini) tour, we wanted to share our enthusiasm and heady taste with fellow travelers.
This was pre-Myspace, much less Phish Twitter, though I think I did get a Friendster account in ‘03. In any case, one of us had the brilliant idea to throw the "Psycho Killer" sign in the back window. Now, the other thing that was getting ready to blow up in early 2003 besides Phish was the Iraq War, which would start about a month later. Much talk of terrorism in the wake of the still fresh 9/11 attacks, and we were driving around with foreign license plates from Quebec, that French province that has impostor freedom fries in its poutine. We were going the speed limit, driving steady and calm, but that didn’t stop a State Trooper from pulling us over somewhere between Philly and Worcester. I don’t remember much about what he said, and I wasn’t driving. But he mentioned folks on the highway were a little concerned about the Psycho Killer driving the interstate, the fact that there were no doubt terrorism threats abound, and a war about to start, and did threaten to “bring us in.” I do remember us saying something along the lines of “it’s a song by a band.” I doubt we tried to explain that it was a song by a band that wasn't the same one we were about to see, nor the particularities of the Halloween costume rules, or whether they’d ever do one again following the VU Loaded set in 98. Anyway, he let us go, and we made it to Worcester.
By the time the 26th had rolled around I had shaken off my hiatus dust with the shows in New Jersey and Philadelphia under my belt, and was walking into a hallowed hall in both Phish’s history, and my own. My one and only Fall 97 show had taken place here on 11/28, and I caught two of the 3 night run in 98 on 11/27 and 11/29. I knew where I was, and it felt good, even if I was enjoying expressing skepticism to some folks with whom I was walking into the venue. If I recall they were singing the praises of the previous night’s gig in Philly, which I had enjoyed, but hadn’t blown me away. “They have a long way to go before they’re hitting anywhere close to where they used to be,” I distinctly remember saying. Which, on the one hand, you could argue was true—but I hadn’t heard the real highlights from earlier in the tour, for one, and really I was probably just trying to assert my fledgling authority like an ass. Regardless of the intent or accuracy of that statement, I am happy to say that whatever ‘way’ they had to go was quickly obliterated on this magic night, from the very first notes.
And how about those first notes! If you want to get technical, the first notes were an old school "Call to the Post" tease—surely a harbinger of classic things to come—before the opening to “You Enjoy Myself,” which dropped like a bomb on a clearly elated and audible crowd on the LivePhish recordings. (And let me pause here for a moment and say something about this particular recording, which I’ve had since 2003 and the LivePhish FLAC download I procured just after the shows. It may be my favourite in the LP catalog. Every member of the band is so clearly audible and balanced, and the crowd along with them. It can’t hurt that the band—and crowd—are at their absolute best, but I would be leaving out an important detail without this nod.) At the time, I’m pretty sure this was the first time "YEM" had opened a two set show since 1989. It was a big deal, and the energy oozes from the get go, and really never lets up. This is a classic, blistering "YEM," with incredible polish and emotion in the first five composed minutes alone—all the tropes and tension that the band had been clearly sharpening in the shows previous now let loose and ready to get into the history books. Trey’s tone could carry this jam by itself, with bluesy echoes of the standout version they dropped here as an almost-opener on 11/28/97, but it doesn’t have to. The drum and bass section of this jam makes another thing abundantly clear; Mike pulled no punches on 2/26/03, and this may be my favourite start-to-finish performance of his in the band’s entire history. But as I alluded to in Parts 1 and 2 of this retrospective, the brilliant thing about these shows is just how high a level each member was playing at, and how well each piece of the puzzle effortlessly interlocked.
So Mike has everyone’s jaws on the floor already as the vocal jam starts up. As I was preparing for these recaps I relistened to the shows in their entirety a few times. I’ve listened to this one many times over the years, and always recollected that “Clone” was teased or referenced in the vocal jam prior to starting the song proper. What I didn’t hear however, until twenty years later, was the clearly audible “Donuts, tasty donuts” just prior to that. I ask you, dear reader, has that always been there in this vocal jam? Or is this the work of the Sci-Fi Soldier? I’ll leave that to other scholars to uncover. In the meantime, “Clone” is a great song, and like “Round Room” on this tour, fits with the vibe, and I say let’s resurrect him in ‘23.
Clone, of course, was the first of four songs in a mini ‘side projects’ set that also featured “Blue Skies,” “Final Flight,” and Trey’s “Drifting” (which gets my other vote for songs that deserve another crack at the Phish rotation). Normally a little gimmick like this might detract from a set, but there’s something about it here that just works. Maybe it’s the pacing, or because they’re all relatively short, “Drifting” aside. Or it could be that playing is just that strong. On that note, it’s worth noting too that “Roggae” appears after "Clone" and among these songs, which, although part of the Phish repertoire, also features each band member singing an individual part—as if to nod to this configuration. And "Roggae" is another exercise in precision and punch; Trey so delicate and soulful out of the gate around 4 minutes and with the slightest “What’s the Use?” tease, before he and Mike come together in the first of many intimate puzzles they’d build in this set alone.
And of those perfect puzzles, you’d be hard pressed to find a better example of that fugue-like interplay between Trey and Mike over the years than this stand out “Moma Dance,” the OG of Type II "Momas" that until only very recently reigned supreme in a frothy sea of mostly funky standard versions. Maybe this side project set works so well because those songs are anchored by three monsters in the "YEM," "Moma," and "Maze" (more on this one shortly). By the time this "Moma" hit they were just ready to go. Sometimes that happens, and it was a wonder to behold, and still a pleasure to unpack all these years later. It starts with Trey riffing something simple while everyone gets grounded, but Fish is soon picking up the message, Trey sustains, and Mike gets pumping, Page layers, and by 8 minutes the crowd and the band both know something special is afoot. How do you describe the pulse and bounce of this jam? It has some of that 99 everglades calypso, but more technical, sharper. The space they’re playing in is smaller, but the sound more expansive somehow. Deconstructed and delicious, until it really unwinds, and is brought back home to the moment of the "Moma," which Page gleefully accents before leading his “Final Flight” to close the side project quartet.
That’s not the end of the set though. No, that honour goes to this here “Maze.” And I’d like to close my recap of this set by just coming out and indulging in this question: is this "Maze" the GOAT (greatest of all time)? If you had asked me about "Maze" going into this show twenty years ago, I’d probably give it a warm if nostalgic nod. A classic from the old school repertoire, one which—like its sonic sibling in "David Bowie"—had mostly seen better days between 93 and 95, when the sheer fury and precision of the band alone could take a song over the finish line. Well to that position I offer this version, which starts innocently enough, but at around 7 minutes finds itself at the precipice of an energetic frenzy, with the attention and devotion of every band member, as if to realize: “I am Maze!” “I am the thing from which you will never escape!” “What have I to fear?” “What have I to offer these mere mortals?” “What do they know of tension?” “What of release?” “What storms have I wrought and what thunder and lightning, across all time, which is eternity, which is the Maze?” Or something like that. This "Maze" both stays within the structure of the song proper, and also somehow obliterates it, like an orb expanding into itself. An orb that executes its explosion with perfection. Another memory I have etched into my mind from this show is the end of this set, and the emphatic classic fist pump from Trey before they marched off for break. “We liked that, thank you!” you can hear him say on the recording. Yeah. Us too. The end of this set was a bit of a revelation. If the band had gone anywhere, they were back. And they were up to some serious shit.
Set 2 is a distinctly Phishy classic, building from the tone set by the old school "Maze." An impressive stand-alone “Stash” opens, which I’ll admit I haven’t given as much attention over the years as the “Ghost” that follows. But if you’re guilty of the same crime, it’s worth a deep listen. The first 10 minutes stay "Stashy" but are far from dull, mixing in various jamming styles from this tour in a short period, before things settle and Trey leads the band in a plucky staccato excursion not unlike the jam they’d pull off in the very same venue almost 8 years later in “Harry Hood” on 12/28/10. (I’ll admit I don’t ever recall that part of the jam being so pronounced. More work of the Sci-Fi Soldier?) Back to the "Stash" theme around 15 minutes, as the gnarly 2.0 wall of sound goes up and Page gets a chance to get nasty before they bring it home for a clean 20 minutes.
Does it get any more intentionally spooky than following a 20 minute "Stash" with "Ghost?" At the time this was only the second appearance of "Ghost" since 2000, the first having shown up a week prior in Las Vegas on 2/15. But like that version it doesn’t stay spooky for long, with Mike lifting the band up with a jaunty bassline that Trey and Page then dance around for a bit. By 7 minutes Trey is ready to get rhythmic, and that’s easy, because Jon Fishman is a rhythm machine in 2003, pulsing and powerful, ready to go wherever anyone wants to go, on a dime. By the next show he and Trey would pull off what was maybe the most impactful mid-jam tempo change they’ve ever done—but they still had a "Ghost" to slay first. By 9 minutes, this "Ghost" is pure groove, delay loops over a bounce, Page laying on the "No Quarter"-esque textures, and Mike approves with the bell. When Mike hits the bell, you know everyone's feeling good! DING! Things get bluesy from here, Trey finds a tasty lick that Mike follows, they side step and crunch for a bit, but it’s not long before Trey suggests dipping into "Low Rider." No complaints from me.
Indeed from this point on the show turns into a bit of a segue-fest, but it never feels like a gimmick. "Low Rider" bleeds into “Makisupa” and then into a lively if standard “Ya Mar” that gives Mike another opportunity to shine. Though from here out none of the song choices or performances scream for the jam charts, somehow the show flows and delivers with the best of them. I wonder if this is what I love most about 2/26/03: about how it weaves together so many threads, captures so many differing aspects of the band without trying too hard, and still rises to the top, covered in extra mustard.
“Guyute” is powerful, dark, and full of emotion, and the perfect punctuation mark between the second stretch of segues. “Waves” kicks it off, my first repeat at the time on this mini-tour. Not as strong as the hidden gem on 2/24, but charming with its outro jam and thematic segue in “Prince Caspian” (the first time they’d make this pairing, ‘afloat upon the waves’). Not as charming though, as the playful outro to "Caspian" that they delightfully transform into “Frankenstein.”
If you think the show was rote and throwaway from this point on, you’d be sorely mistaken. Like the "Maze" from Set 1, this monster finds new life in the frenzied wall of 2.0 sound that was only just getting its legs. Once Fish takes center stage in the song’s solo and Page starts cackling, Trey follows suit and they erect one of the gnarliest "Frankenstein" finales I think I’ve ever heard them do. It’s not long, but it’s mean and it's alive.
This carries into the "Golgi" (quite literally with "Frankenstein" quotes), which listening back today sounds like the perfect acknowledgement of the band having thrown down an old school classic on new terms. Listen for Mike and Fish’s fills as Trey leads them through the song. Listen for the crowd erupt in recognition through its quieter familiar stretches. Listen as we all come crashing back together and bring it to a raging close, and tell me that extra mustard don’t taste so sweet.
“Thanks a lot everybody!”
Think if you’ve heard one "Loving Cup" encore you’ve heard ‘em all? Think again. Ladies and gentleman, only fitting that on a night like this, we’d be treated to an extended, smokey, exploratory version of the Stones classic. (And is that “Wipeout” lick I’m hearing for the first time on last relisten? Damn you, Sci-Fi Soldier!).
Throw this one in the Time Machine, folks, and keep it handy. We’ll be using it to decode a lot of what’s important in the past and future for eons to come. The only question remaining? Could they top this on 2/28 at the Nassau Coliseum? Tune in to our Part 4 finale to find out.
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