[Phish.net thanks @andrewrose for this four part reflection on one of Phish's strongest individual tours: Winter 2003. -Ed.]
PART 4: Destiny Refound in the Round Church
Well I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I decided to revisit these four shows from 2003, much like I didn’t know what I was getting into 20 years earlier heading out to them. As I sit down to write the last entry on 2/28/03, I’m feeling a little apprehensive that I won’t be able to do justice to this magical performance (or at the very least give it the level of attention as I did to 2/26 in Part 3). It’s actually giving me a fresh appreciation for the band’s ability to show up night after night, especially after a big performance, and try and outdo themselves. It takes a certain kind of stamina and dedication–and let’s face it, a little derangement—to keep it up. And the fact that as I write this the band is about to kick off another year of shows in 2023 is downright mind-boggling. But enough with the disclaimers; this show doesn’t need my entry to solidify its place in the pantheon, any more than it needed that "Mexican Cousin" in the encore. But the question is, does it work anyway? Let’s dive into the finale with Part 4 to find out.
When last we left our heroes they were exiting the Worcester Centrum, having left notice that the New Years runs in 93 and 95 and Fall 97 and 98 shows would not be that room’s last entries in the upper echelon of the history books. They had a night off on the 27th after three shows in succession, and so did we. We got to Long Island on the 27th, and good Canadian boys that we were, decided to take in a hockey game at the venue we’d be heading to the very next night, the Nassau Coliseum. We got the cheapest and shittiest tickets possible from a scalper and took in a 3-3 tie between the home town Isles, and the New Jersey Devils. The internet tells me Shawn Bates scored with assists from Mike Peca and Mark Parrish (had him in my pool!) midway through the 3rd to tie it. This was pre 3vs3 OT and shootouts. (The early 00s were not a particularly exciting time for hockey.) Still, good times!
After spending the night on the floor in Worcester up front, we had seats just up in the bowl on Page side right before it started to curve back around behind the stage. A close friend with whom I had gotten into the band in the mid-nineties scored a miracle after being shutout the night before, and I was psyched to be seeing it with him. I didn’t know it then but this would be the last show we’d see together.
The show starts innocently enough, though there’s a lot of energy in the room, no doubt leftover from the momentum now built to a fever pitch, two dates left in the tour, and another historic venue on deck. Likely the band knew what they were going to get up to in the second slot, so “Birds of a Feather” has a kind of tentative but excited energy to it, and stays in the box as a neat opener. Page is feeling it though, and the recording again is nice and clean and strong. Trey is clearly on a mission with that full solo around 3 minutes, even if they keep things close to the chest.
What happened next was pretty special. Bustouts are a little difficult sometimes to situate historically as time passes. Songs get played again, and audience reactions on recordings may be all we have to trace the ephemeral thrill that if you ask me still plays second fiddle to a great jam, even in person. That said, this one was a little different. “Destiny Unbound” was the holy grail of bustouts at the time, it’s status and mythology no doubt magnified in the five years previous since the failed ‘front row audience sing-along’ on 11/22/97 that led to Trey’s “That just sounds like horrible cannibalistic chant for people who want blood, I don’t know what you’re saying. Hunh deh doo dah wuhn deh doo darh… ” As the story goes (and I don’t know where I first heard this), after a number of requests apparently the band said they’d play "Destiny Unbound" again if ever the entire first row of the crowd sang the first verse, or something to that effect. Obviously they didn’t play it that night, despite best efforts. In any case, the song hadn’t been played since 1991, and I don’t think anyone saw it coming.
On that note, I’d argue there were three kinds of fans in the room: 1) fans who knew and recognized the song, 2) fans who knew of the song and its significance, and 3) fans who knew nothing about it. I wish I could say I was in the first category, but I was squarely in the second. It’s not like I was listening to a ton of tapes from ‘91 in those years. But it was an amazing experience to be part of the collective realization of the bustout happening in real time, and I’m sure what played out with us happened all over the arena: We saw someone freaking out and quickly said “what is this?” and when he announced “Destiny Unbound!” I have a vivid memory of my friend going “HOLY! SHIT!” And if you listen to the recording you can hear that gradual swell fill the arena. It was a special moment. I don’t know what inspired them to play it. I like to think it was the heights they got to as a band the night previous, and the way we met them as a crowd, as if the moment in history needed to be marked—as if to say the band’s destiny was still unwritten. Either way as you can imagine the show suddenly took on additional significance. The performance itself is funky and tight, rehearsed of course, but otherwise in the box. A quick "Horn" follows, maybe an extension of the car theme that would show up at least one more time before the night was done. Trey’s vocals feel earnest and pure, as do his notes.
With "Bathtub" Gin we come upon the first meat of the set. Always a welcome treat, I’ve sung "Gin’s" praises endlessly over the years, especially its 97-00 era, where I drank my fair share of top shelf vintages. This year is a bit of a transition for "Bathtub Gin," but February boasts a couple fantastic ones. I hadn’t heard it yet by this point, but the Valentine’s Day offering to start the tour has really aged well, and if you haven’t heard the pure house that pours out of it, run, do not walk, before getting on with the rest of this story. It’s a tad shorter and I may be in the minority here, but I think I prefer the 2/14 "Gin" to this 22 minute version, but that doesn’t mean it’s any kind of slouch. They get their footing in "Gin" territory until around the 7 and a half minute mark, and then Page and Trey signal it’s time to escalate. Trey had sick riffs just falling out of his pockets by the end of this tour, and it didn’t take much to plant a seed for the band to run with. If Mike dominated the early parts of the show in Worcester, Page is really front and center filling this jam with texture. This is mostly bluesy bounce, picking up some of the threads from the Ghost the previous night but by 12 minutes is building to a peak, and Fish is meeting Trey in some pretty high places, those hi-hats going hard. Then Page breaks out the clav and Trey gets disco rhythms going. By 17 minutes it has settled into a downtempo groove, and Trey and Mike find notes in the finale around 19 minutes that start hinting at real majestic beauty. They don’t quite get there (that would come later), but this is obviously a keeper of a jam either way. Back to "Gin" to close.
"Sleep" is a nice breather here. Again, emotion and patience in the voice and performance. Just enjoying the moment. "Back on the Train" enjoys its moment too. Laid back but builds in the box to a tight declaration that yes, indeed, this band is back. By this point in the set it’s clear the band is content to enjoy the songs, not push things too much. There’s nothing to prove. "Bouncing" precedes another offering of "Walls of the Cave" in the set closer spot. I don’t have a lot to add to this "Walls" beyond what I offered in Part 2 and the performance in Philly, only to say that it no doubt did a solid job of rounding out the warmup for what was to come.
Setbreak was a revelation. The "Destiny" bustout (and the big "Bathtub") had glows on faces you’d usually only see after a full smoker of a show. There was a lot of pure, joyful eye contact among strangers and friends, as if to say “dude, they just played "Destiny Unbound".” I remember yelling into the crowd in the roundabout “Who has a destiny?” “You all have a destiny!” I was jazzed from the big "Gin," too, hotly anticipating what was to come.
So what was to come? Well I’ll start with this before stepping into the freezer: if Set 1, "Destiny" and "Bathtub" aside, wasn’t quite the start to finish piece of polish they pulled off in both sets in Worcester, from "Tweezer" to its "Reprise" on 2/28/03 the band pieced together one of the greatest sets they’ve ever played, and that ain’t hyperbole.
This "Tweezer" really deserves its own 3000 word treatise, but in the interest of some semblance of brevity and sanity I’ll try and keep it tighter than that. As they come out and slowly fire it up, it’s obvious right away that this was the only option for a set opener. Like some of the other all time "Tweezers," you can tell early on from Trey’s eagerness and licks in the composed song that something special is afoot. The crowd erupts early (Trey caught a glow stick if I recall), and at around 3:05 you can hear the seeds of a lick he’s going to launch the jam with a few minutes later. Page clears some space, Trey gnarls as they wind down to Uncle Ebenezer and here too listen for some additional quick descending notes that are unique to this version.
At 5:25, Trey launches the jam with as much conviction and direction as you will ever hear. If he sat back at times and explored textures and tones and melodic interplay with Mike in Worcester, on this jam he’s unleashed, unquestionably leading the charge, and everyone is on board. He leaves some room just before 7 minutes for Page to add spacey texture and Fish holds the ground for second, and then Trey’s back on it at 7:30 with that direction again. Page back with the "No Quarter" layers and Fish just loving the drive, filling it with Mike in every corner, without crowding. No one is getting in Trey’s way here. Not that they could. This is one of those direct downloads from the source. More room at 9 minutes until another idea comes, licks from higher up, groove permeating every crevice in the Coliseum. We were loving this, and it would only get better. He finds a refrain at around 10 minutes and is bringing it back up, and then shifts to some wah wah chords, drawing on the ideas they explored in the excellent 2/20 "Tweezer"—an important precursor that laid the foundations for what they’d do next.
At 11 minutes he throws a couple more, and Jon Fishman executes a thundering double-timed collapse of the rhythm that is just about the most badass thing he’s ever done. Trey is so in step with him (and the rest of the band is equally in the pocket) that he’s able to slowly lay down two sets of three chord changes that would sound magically composed if they didn’t seem and outright otherworldy. At this moment in the show I was floored, and ran down to the rail a couple rows ahead that was hanging not far from Page and Trey beyond him, and yelled out an emphatic “YEEEAAAAAAAAAAH!”. Pretty sure many others in the room did the same. Fishman crashes over it, and Trey neatly wraps up that excursion that is really just the ground for even greater heights. Page approves. Trey plays with a couple riffs back and forth, and then around 12:23, a key shift that everyone picks up instantly, Page highlights and Mike soulfully echoes, and then Trey is off again. The music that follows around the 13 minute mark, spontaneously emergent in live space, is bigger than anything I could possibly say about bustouts or two night runs or anything else. If suffering and loss are woven right into the fabric of reality and of human experience, then sounds like this are the balm, the redemption, the reason it’s all OK, even if it’s not OK.
As a Phish fan I’ve endured a lot of scorn and ridicule over the decades, as I’m sure many of you reading this have. But passages of improvisation like this are a secret weapon I keep close to my heart, the gift that frankly, makes me mourn for those who can’t hear it. An unbroken chain about the power—and yes, love— that fuels this whole thing, even if a lot of silly stuff gets in the way most of the rest of the time. So where was I? We’re at about 18 minutes here, and this "Tweezer" by now has vaulted in some very elite territory (for me anyway), right next to my other favourite jam, the "Tweezer" from 12/6/97. The last stretch of the jam is more bluesy rock out, Page and Trey trading licks until it breaks open a bit more downtempo, refraining one of those Stones-like themes, which they could have easily used as an easy hard finish, but nope.
Slow gnarly tone from Trey signals he doesn’t want a complete stop; things are too special now for that, and out of the echo and Fish’s rumbly march comes the second big bustout of the night, and the absolutely perfect landing pad for the all-timer they had just dropped: "Soul Shakedown Party." This hadn’t been played since 2/20/97! Also coming out of a "Tweezer" in February (but in Milan, not on Long Island)! Si, jah man. They weren’t hiding anything at this point. This was indeed a "Soul Shakedown Party." Mike has a lot of fun in the midsection and they take their time. A little reggae stretch persists, but then Trey throws a spacey effect out. Fish and Mike hear him and acknowledge, but keep the reggae going while he and Page build another sound altogether. The crowd comes in with a clap to keep pace, lots of ‘yeahs!’ and whistles. We are floating in space now, and we know it. Fish picks up the tempo and bit and then brings the "David Bowie."
A nice long old school intro ensues, Mike and Trey chase each other up and down the scales for two full minutes, the crowd cheers in feverish anticipation, Trey teases more with hi fret plucks. Fish not in a rush. And at 3 minutes, bam. If you didn’t read Part 3 of this retrospective, I’m tempted to point you to the sendup I did of the "Maze" from that show as a reference point here. Not just for the obvious sounds these songs share, but in part their histories, and the strength of these performances. If anyone is really familiar with the "Tweezer" but hasn’t spent a lot of time with the rest of this set, get on it. The jam is patient and stays "Bowie"-esque through 10 minutes, Page again shining while Trey runs up and down and Mike matches him. They play here for a while. And then by around 13 minutes there’s a sidestep and dissonant drone, Fish just destroying and the band deconstructing the whole gnarly piece. When they bring it back to a "Bowie" build at 15 minutes, the energy and power on display feel like they’re going to lift the Coliseum off the ground. Wall of sound persists and Trey weaves the song back in one hand, and then wails and pushes it off on the other. The whole band feeds off this for about 90 seconds at 16 minutes, and it’s monstrous, the highlight of the jam. Back to "Bowie" for a flawless and fiery finale, and then the first breather they would take since the set began.
"Round Room" is perfect here! Not as extended as previous version of the tour, but welcome open playful space. Round Church indeed. Whither the "Round Room?"
And it had to be "Harry Hood" here to cap off the 5 song set classic, didn’t it? Like the "Bowie" before it, this is no throwaway ‘big tune’ where they coast on the strength of the highs earlier in the set. We’re beyond that now. Fishman and Page actually steal the show of the early part of the jam to my ears. I hear the crowd cheer and Trey’s patient gathering of feel-goodness and wonder if he was scanning the crowd here, taking it in. (Which reminds me: is there video of this show in the vault? Please tell me there’s video.) This is a "Hood" jam to be sure, building steadily, benevolently, without anything to prove. It hits its first peak at around 10 minutes, but they make that a plateau and go up again. Something old school about this "Hood" the way it baits you into thinking it’s going to close, and then going higher and harder somehow. A long and smoldering finish of feeling good about "Hood."
I suppose I don’t have to point out again by this point that’s an all-timer of a set, or show. But in revisiting these shows I did come across one last bit of insight to add before I wrap up and shift sights to the band’s shows in Mexico, and the ones I’ll be seeing at the Hollywood Bowl in April for my first ever West Coast shows in 30 years of seeing the band. And that’s this: this is a fantastic encore! The band must have known they delivered something special on this night, and the straight up leisure and enjoyment of this "Contact" is downright infectious. Is this the greatest "Contact" ever? Listen to Mike and Trey trade licks through the first few minutes, or the turns each of them take at center stage. It's a vaudevillian feast and I’m here for all of it.
And yes, the moment I know you’ve all been waiting for: that goes for "Mexican Cousin," too. I’ll spare us all comments about the song’s merits or lack thereof, political, poetic, or otherwise. But they earned this performance, which today in 2023 sounds to me like a deeply soulful victory lap, like they’re drunk on the happiness of being home.
Of course the "Reprise" puts a bow on it all (because "Tweezer’s" really where it starts and where it ends…).
Speaking of home, the stage shifted once more for a final great show on the 1st of March in Greensboro, but that was it for me, and I headed back to Montreal full of gratitude and probably in need of a good hot shower. I’d head back out to IT later that summer for my third pilgrimage to Limestone, Maine, but that’s a story from twenty years ago for another time.
Thanks for reading along.
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