Post-Hiatus; 2003-2004 Phish means so many things to so many different people. Some savor it; some don’t even really listen to it. Some trash it for petty reasons. Some were unable to drop their personal or Phish baggage and allow moments to exist and unfold in front of them. Yet, anyone who turns a cold shoulder to this segment of Phish history may be blindsided by certain shows and jams that would beg to differ. The SPAC stand in ’04 might object to such an argument. The Nassau ’03 show might want to throw its two cents into the conversation, while the near 50 minutes of Hood>Bowie from Charlotte might want to speak up. The IT certainly would rise to make a case.
To name a few more argument makers; the entire June ’04 run from Brooklyn to Alpine, Walls>Carini from the LA Forum sending its Valentine’s love, Deer Creek’s Split>Free, or the Chicago show followed by the Cincy two-night run in the winter of ’03 might raise their hands to be called upon. I could go on and on. It’s funny, because there is often so much trash talked about these two years while they are strewn with high quality shows and great jams. People would make the following point– Trey flubbed too many composed licks of Stash, or messed up the fugue in Reba; he wasn’t as accurate on the technical aspects of written pieces. First off, who goes to shows with the primary goal of hearing the composed sections of songs played immaculately? There are albums and 1993 tapes for that. The essence of Phish- and what has always been the essence of Phish- is their improvisation. And to be honest, the “post-hiatus” period was heavy in improvisation and exploratory jamming, typified by the dark-horse show in Camden on 7.30.03- five years ago today.
When Phish played two-night stands, the first night was usually reserved for darker, more experimental jamming, while night two was more often than not, a “greatest-hits” type of show, reserved for more of the crowd favorites and classic jam vehicles. This first night in Camden of ’03 follows this pattern and remains one of the strongest shows from ’03-’04. In looking at this show, we can uncover the facts that Phish, while their sound was ever evolving, and Trey’s tone dirtier and more distorted, were still producing heavy improvisational journeys for all who opened their hearts and minds to them.
On the heels of one of the more popular ’03 shows on 7/29- (the Starlake Crosseyed>Thunderhead & bustout fest), Phish did not let up on the 30th of July as they prepared for IT. Overshadowed by the next night’s more bombastic songs of Piper, Mikes>H2>Weekapaug, Free, and Hood, many don’t recognize the depth and darkness of what happened the night before. In fact, when I mention this show to people, many are not even aware of it. Let’s quickly run through the first set.
In menacing fashion, foreshadowing the rest of the evening, My Friend, My Friend opened the show, honing in on the darker side of things right away. Following Star Lake’s trend of pulling dusty songs of the shelf, Velvet Underground’s “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” batted second, put in the setlist for the first time since Halloween ’98. What followed was an absolute highlight of the show, and the entire summer tour- a sublime 30 minute performance of Scents and Subtle Sounds, the post-hiatus Anastasio/Marshall masterpiece about living life in the Moment. Steeped in blissful and surreal improvisation, this best-ever version reached abstract and psychedelic realms that would be virtually untouched by the song until the band returned to Camden the following summer. Truly a jam for the ages, words can only go so far in describing its regal nature. (See below for the track). A first ever performance of the Dylan classic, “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” followed this deep exploration, providing a respite before they launched into the rare and sought after Spock’s Brain, showing its face for the first time since 10/6/00. A more conventional end of the set included Chalkdust, On Your Way Down, Fast Enough, and Taste- a combination of commonly played and not-so-commonly played songs. The stage was set for what would be a serious second set.
After the break, the opening notes of Twist filled the pavilion. Greatly divergent in form and focus, Twists always appeared in differing forms- from the more Santana-sounding Latin grooves that typified many, to the space-funk that defined the Island Run and SPAC, to the straight alien ambience that made the Meadowlands ’03 version and the Alpine version from earlier in the summer (7.18.03) so heavy. Well, this one would also be different. The jam eased in through previously scouted Twist territory, but soon Trey began to lead the jam outwards as the rest of the band built a collective and cohesive groove underneath him. As Fishman switched beats, the feel of the jam changed and the whole band began to dig deeper, as Trey’s tone became a little dirtier and more distorted. As the band locked into a singular rhythmic pattern, the improvisation moved into darker depths. Speeding up, Phish turned into a chugging freight train with some serious non-conventional Twist jamming highlighted by a sick drum beat which Trey soon picked up on and began to speak over. This jam moved into very abstract and dissonant places which transformed into frenetic madness with Trey offering some of his deepest phrasings of the night, before it chilled out into walls of sound with lighter Trey and Page melodies on top. With a magnifying glass on evil darkness, the Twist trickled to an end as a stand alone piece without resolution within the jam itself- but as Phish can often do, they used the next song, Bug, as the release to the Twist.
The Twist>Bug is really one entity- one experience- juxtaposing crystalline guitar melodies, providing the emotional and triumphant conclusion, to the 25 minutes of darkness that preceded. Trey and Page built the Bug to a truly massive crescendo before its conclusion. The band took longer than normal after such an adventurous excursion before deciding to turn the Tweeter Center into a dance party with the opening melodies of You Enjoy Myself.
The YEM, itself, is multifaceted beginning with minimalist staccato rhythm licks from Trey over the notoriously bulbous groove, letting Mike and Page take the lead. Trey seamlessly morphed his licks into melodies, providing lead lines and rhythm patterns simultaneously, before ripping into a more typical YEM shred session that brought the crowd to energetic heights. The four-song set closed with the highly allegorical Walls of the Cave, made even more poignant in the long-cast shadows of New York City. Ending the dark and exploratory set with some high octane energy to lead the crowd off into the night, Phish had just provided a set (+ Scents) of incredibly deep improvisation which, honestly, typified a lot of summer 03 shows. Secret Smile provided the perfectly sensual ending to an evening that would live on in infamy.
Regardless of the year, 1993 or 2003, Phish are magicians. A couple of years off didn’t change that, and fours years off now will not change that either. Should we expect things to sound different when they come back for post-hiatus part deux? For sure. Will it still be magic that speaks to and explores our souls? For sure.
Pictures above are from 7.30.03 Set II. (Thanks to Phishpics.net)