Every year in Phish’s history is someone’s favorite. This, to me, is one of the great things about the band: since they’re always restless and always curious, they’re always trying new things, and the audience they’ve amassed is bound to have some people who love it.
The flip side: every year is also someone’s least favorite. I may love the ’97 funk, but you may find it repetitive. Maybe the locomotive force behind August ’93 jamming is what Phish is all about to me; to you, it might sound like they’re just trying to be weird.
Over time, the trend among the fan base seems to be toward division. The first really large waves of negativity that I remember surrounding the band’s output started around 1999. After the hiatus, it only grew. Following the 2009 reunion, there was a brief period of relief that the band was back, but it’s been followed by an unprecedented polarization.
For this Tale of Mental Tangle, OPT and I decided to take two later-era tours–Summer 2000 and Summer 2003–and try to sort out just what was going on: what the good points and bad points were, and how it all measures up.
The Hard Evidence
Download Guy Forget’s Top 10 of Summer 2003
1. 7/8/03 Down with Disease
2. 7/13/03 Seven Below
3. 7/18/03 Down with Disease > Catapult
4. 7/22/03 Split Open and Melt
5. 7/23/03 Sneaking Sally Through the Alley
6. 7/25/03 Harry Hood
7. 7/29 Crosseyed and Painless
8. 7/30/03 Scents and Subtle Sounds
9. 8/3/03 Ghost
10. 8/3/03 Pebbles and Marbles
Download OPT’s Top Ten of Summer 2000
1. 6/22/00 Harry Hood > Dog Faced Boy > Harry Hood
2. 6/24/00 Tweezer
3. 6/28/00 Bathtub Gin
4. 6/28/00 Mike’s Song
5. 6/29/00 Birds of a Feather > Catapult > Heavy Things
6. 6/30/00 Cavern
7. 7/4/00 Gotta Jibboo > I Saw It Again > Magilla
8. 7/7/00 Maze > Shafty > Maze
9. 7/8/00 Tweezer > Walk Away
10. 7/11/00 Drowned > Chalkdust Torture Reprise
Opening Statement: Guy Forget
Summer 2000 is kind of like the mirror image of Summer 2003. The former was the second-to-last tour before the hiatus; the latter was the second tour after the break ended. While the band had played seven shows in Japan just before the ‘00 tour and a handful more in the US shortly before that, they’d only played 12 gigs in the 2.5 years preceding July ‘03, and none in over four months. Not surprisingly, they took a few shows to get warmed up in ‘03, while they began to sound weary by the end of the 2000 tour.
It’s there, in the final 10 days of Summer 2000, that I think the tour falters in comparison to Summer ‘03. Even if the first few shows of July ‘03 don’t have the consistency and power with which the band finished the month and brought with them to It, those early shows all still have some excellent moments. They showcase a band that was excited to get back on the road, and hungry to innovate–which, once again, was the opposite of the state of the band at the tail end of Summer 2000.
The music of Phish is broken up into three distinct eras: 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. The summer of 2000 represents the the ending to the most–it’s hard for me to properly put into words–most amazing tale in American music history of our time. It represents the healthy winding down of the most consistently impressive music of our time.
Although the summer of 2003 flourished with feelings of excitement, relief, and fun, Phish brought back more than just jams, they introduced us to a feeling of unease about them that still hasn’t been completely extinguished from all of us. While I loved that Phish was back, I couldn’t shake the idea that something was amiss. To me, summer 2003 was full of extreme emotions about the band–good and bad. In contrast, 2000 reaped a feeling of peace, belonging and, most of all, humility that was sown only after nearly two decades of time and energy exerted by both the band and fans alike–possibly more than any band/fan connection in history.
With all the emotions of the eras set aside, let’s get down to what Online Phish Tour is really about: serious Phish discussion.
2003 certainly has its share of insane jams, arguably more than 2000 (note to reader: when I refer to just the years, I am implying just the summer tour of the respective year); however, I’d argue that the great jams of 2003 are disproportionate to the questionable playing during the course of the 21-show tour. While I enjoyed some of the good jams very much, I also spent a lot of time coping with the fact that Trey might never be the same. Jams like the Alpine Down with Disease and the Utah Mr. Completely didn’t provide me with enough confidence to look past the following facts:
- Trey dropped his cabinets for his Fender amp (yes, I know he had used it before 2.0–however, not regularly)
- Trey dropping his Ross compressor
- Trey’s scratchy sound (contributed to by the two previous points)
It’s interesting what you say about the feelings of unease that the band’s playing brought about in Summer 2003. This came up on Phantasy Tour earlier this week and the point I made there was that I tuned out the flubs. I think the key to a long term relationship with Phish is being open minded. The band has brought different things to the table every year they’ve been on the road, and if you’re going to a show with the intention of tuning in to what the band is doing, rather than dwelling on what they aren’t, chances are you’re going to have fun. In 2003, that meant appreciating the improvisatory risk-taking, and focusing as little as possible on how the compositions sounded.
In that respect, Summer ‘03 delivered. You were as likely to see a groundbreaking jam out of Hood (Charlotte – as well as Alpine, to a degree) as Ghost. There were pedal-to-the-metal jams, like 7/15 Mr. Completely, funk jams like 7/23 Sneakin’ Sally, space jams like 8/2 Waves, and jams that went all over the place, like 7/22 Melt, 7/29 Crosseyed, 8/3 Chalkdust, and dozens of others.
My point is this: Phish’s ability to improvise is their greatest skill, and it’s the main reason I see them live so often. And Summer 2003 was one of the most prolific and creative eras for Phish’s improvisation. And while I’d love to go back in time and see 6/24/00 Tweezer or 6/28/00 Gin, I consider the overall quality and consistency of the jamming in Summer 2003 to be higher than in the summer of 2000.
Yes, there was some exploratory jamming in 2003–however, the entire package of 2000 was tighter. While the improvisation is my favorite part of a Phish concert, the overall package is more important. It’s not only many of the inexcusable flubs in 2003, it’s also the fact that Trey’s tone was disgusting. I mean, changing to the Fender amp was one thing, but getting rid of the compressor? What was Trey thinking? Why the hell would he get rid of a major part of the tone that helped Phish make history?
2000 has such a well-rounded summer tour. While some of the jams didn’t explore as deeply as some of the 2003 jams, and many of the peaks didn’t reach the height of some from 1999, the larger picture boasts a very refined version of our favorite band. Trey used much of what he learned in the decade leading up to the summer. There were elements of explosive rock and improvisational guitar (see 6/28/00’s Gin and 7/8/00’s Tweezer); moments of thick funk as seen in 7/11/00’s Drowned; the stop/start jamming we witnessed in the thunderous 6/28/00 Mike’s Song; song mash-ups like 6/30/00’s Cavern/Tweezer, along with the entire second set of 7/11/00 with the Moby Dick jamming; and this year would mark the last year Trey would regularly use infinite digital delay loops regularly (outside of Jibboo).
The loss of the digital delay loops (the classic type that used to begin Ghosts) really bust my chops in 2003. I understood the evolution from the wah-friendly funk of the end of the 90’s, but losing the delay loops completely was lost on me. I consider the digital delay loops that were once dripped over the stage like an eerie spiderweb during funk jams as much a part of Phish’s experience as the white can lights that Kuroda used to crank up when Trey hit his peak–it’s something you just expect from them at a show. Yes, while Kuroda’s lights are amazing right now, I do miss the white can lights on the rig–but this is a discussion for another ToMT.
I’m all for Phish jamming, but when jamming comes at the expense of being able to play their own songs correctly, it’s like selling their soul. I had trouble watching my band (Trey) limp through the composed sections of songs that once blew my mind before launching into a drug-fueled jam. I enjoyed myself during the drug-fueled jams, but, at the same time, I was embarrassed I was seeing a band that couldn’t even play all of their songs.
On the well-roundedness of 2000’s summer tour, I think you’re right. But let’s not forget that exploratory jams weren’t the only great thing about Summer ‘03. In Utah, you had the Mr. Completely fest (which, in case any readers forget, includes rarities like Low Rider, BBFCFM–twice, Buried Alive, and Ha Ha Ha). In Burgettstown, the biggest bustout show in Phish history (huge ones like Crosseyed, Brother and Harpua, plus smaller ones like Daniel Saw the Stone, Camel Walk, and Cool It Down), which was followed by a handful of other rarities the following night in Camden. At It, the Tower Jam. And of course, the debut of Spices and Spread It ‘Round, the second and third greatest Phish songs ever, after Jennifer Dances.
As far as the changes to Trey’s tone and rig, you’re right. Even as a 2.0 fluffer, I’ll be the first to admit to getting frustrated by the overly gritty tone, which often trampled over the sounds the rest of the band was putting out. But I just don’t think that his playing suffered. His ability to solo was still in great shape (check out the Julius from It for just one example). But more importantly, he was the one constantly coming up with the ideas, pushing jams in new directions. I feel like we come back to this in a lot of these debates: Trey has always been the leader of Phish, and he’s ultimately the one who gets the credit and the blame for what the band is doing. It’s fair to fault Trey for his tone, or for leading some jams into spacier territory than a lot of fans would like. But on the same note, he deserves credit for the peaks that occur in every show.
Finally, the flubs. There’s a reason people bring them up: they happened. But like so many stereotypes and generalizations, the way people remember them is much more extreme than the way they actually were. Check out the YEM from It. You’d be hard pressed to find a version from the mid to late 90s where Trey plays the composed portion as cleanly. Obviously, I don’t mean to disprove the overgeneralizations of the anti-flub crowd with my own overgeneralization based on one clean version. My point is that the band wasn’t incapable of playing their songs. In fact, most of the time they played them pretty well. I get that people’s tolerance for flubs can be pretty low–after all, we’re paying a lot of money to see these guys, so it’s reasonable to expect them to be well-rehearsed more often than “most of the time.” But really, it’s not as bad as a lot of people would have you believe.
Well, one point I agree with you on is that the flubs are not as bad when I look back. However, at the time they were glaring. During the 2003 summer tour, the flubs and the simple fact that they wouldn’t play Fluffhead became a possible point of concern. Now we can look back and see that Trey moved past it just fine. Also, as I look back, I’m much more interested in the jams rather than the songs because now I compare 3.0 to 2.0 jamming styles making the errors in composed execution less glaring.
To respond to your Mr. Completely mention, the jam leading up to the “sandwich” part is much more impressive than the sloppy Ha Ha Ha and Buried Alive. It’s simply cool that they did it for doing its sake.
Some non-jam highlights of summer 2000:
- 6/22: all the guests and the complete version of Freebird
- 6/28: Trey participating in glowstick war during Hood
- 7/3: All fall down secret language
- 7/4: Magilla
- 7/7: Maze -> Shafty -> Maze
- 7/11: Chalkdust Reprise x2 and the entire 2nd set
- 7/12: The Curtain With bustout; arguably bigger than Fuck Your Face’s
- 7/14: the storm
In my mind, summer 2003 was party Phish. They circumvented the responsible things like playing their songs properly to just jam recklessly. Was it fun? Yea, but it didn’t make for better Phish. While Trey was executing intriguing patterns during jams and pushing jams further in ‘03, he still wasn’t able to hit those clean tension/release peaks that he was still capable of executing in the end of the holy era of 1.0.
Totally agree on 7/15/03. I think that set is a little bit like 10/30/10, in that it was probably better at the show than on tape. (Although the Utah show does have some great playing, whereas the Zeppelin set is pretty full of slop.)
I think you have a point about the drop-off in Trey’s ability to hit peaks cleanly between 2000 and 2003. And actually, although I’m not much of a fan of 2000 Phish – I basically think they started the year with some incredible stuff in NYC and Japan, then got worse and worse as the year went along – I think it actually may be the peak of balls-to-the-wall rock-star Trey. The two moments that stick out more than any other are 6/28/00 Gin and 9/14/00 Suzy. In those two, as well as the 2/24/01 Jibboo by TAB, Trey sounds like a wolf on the hunt, playing with utter ferocity, but complete control. Although some people probably prefer the peaks from a ‘94 Antelope or Hood, there’s a power in some of these ‘00 jams that was new.
Well, I’d consider the jamming in Mr. Completely far more impressive than any of the jamming from the Halloween 2010 run–Trey at least arrived to the sandwich songs organically after extended improvisation, rather than just doing it right out of the gates.
I also agree that the NYC and Japan stuff from 2000 was fantastic and the playing got more and more generic as the year wore on.
To be honest, I rarely listen to either year anymore–while I think summer 2000 represented a better picture of what Phish is to me better than the summer of 2003, I guess it doesn’t matter–we have the luxury to cherry-pick our favorite moments from either tour now.
All I know is that I look back at summer 2000 as a euphoric time–where everything seemed to have come to a natural swell in their career and fanbase. My feelings during summer 2003 certainly contained excitement but was overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and skepticism. That all being said, the summer of 2009 was full of every good emotion one could have over Phish–at least for me.
We hope all your minds have been enriched. Enrich ours with your comments, and by voting in the all-important poll.