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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 2: To Think That It Fell From My Hand
02/25/2003 - The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
(Continued from Part 1: How is it I Never Saw?)
After what I thought at the time was a bit of a letdown on 2/24, my expectations were likely more muted coming into the Spectrum, despite it being my first (and last, I think?) show in one of the many ‘hometowns’ we seem to have in the Northeast. Lord knows they’ve played some good ones at The Spectrum (hello Fall 97), and more recently at the Mann in 2015, which comes quickest to mind. And these days you can spot Gritty at just about any show. But the town or venue weren’t super significant to me at the time, and Gritty was just a twinkle in his Fraggle Daddy’s eye; we were city hopping on tour, and I honestly didn’t know what to expect, or which version of the band was currently brewing.
This show takes a little longer to get moving. "Julius" makes for a fine warmup opener. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but Mike is clearly feeling good and walking those lines, Trey maybe echoing the BB King sit in from the night previous and they flare it up a bit. "Talk" is maybe a bit of a mild offering for so early in the set, but they wouldn’t play it much more after this. The set to be honest is disjointed and short on real highlights compared to the gems from the night previous and certainly the two shows that would follow.
But as ever there are high points that fit very nicely in the arc of these four shows, a bridge between some hose-y moments earlier in the tour, and the fever pitch they were collectively cultivating in the days to follow. "Frankie Says" sets a nice tone for an absolutely smoking first set "Slave." Some rust to shake off from a tiring night previous? In any case, as the "Slave" jams opens, Mike is stepping up more and more with poise and plucked notes. Trey is more patient, and they lock in. Page again with delicateness not unlike the "Hood" from the night before. And Trey then responds with a couple very long sustained notes, delicate but forceful too, electronic, Kid A-esque even, for just a second? And then they build a wall of sound.
This, maybe save one or two very magical unique jams that have a category entirely unto themselves, is really a hallmark of some of the appeal of these shows, listening back. There’s a densely layered, frenzied and yet controlled fire of sound they’re able to build that feels unique to this era. Something about the tones, the tension, the agility of the band and how locked-in they are. Or maybe it’s just the effect of indoor sheds in the Northeast in fucking February? (Jaded vet voice: Back in my day we didn’t get to go to Mexico for February tour!) Whatever it is, it’s gnarly goo-ball goodness. The "Slave" peak comes out of the first signs of this space, taking its sweet-ass indentured time, as you’d want it to. The payoff is worth everything penny, Fish ready to end it anytime but Trey keeps it riding. This is a great "Slave to the Traffic Light," your keeper from the first set of 2/25.
"Walls of the Cave," if you’re a fan, may have something to offer too. Can’t go wrong with Fishman on the woodblocks. Another new tune at the time that was getting regular play, it wasn’t unwelcome, but doesn’t do as much for me as, say, "Waves." Still, tight.
Set two looks meaty to open on paper, for certain, but I’ll take the "Halley’s," "Hood" and "Twist" from the night previous over this "Bag" > "Cities," though the latter has its moments, particularly in the downtempo outro. They were just starting to feel it, so laid the "Cities" down in Philly, and struck up "Theme from the Bottom."
Fast forward to 2022 for a second, and the absolutely brilliant "Theme" I saw in Toronto last summer (and then the similarly exploratory version at the end of the year at MSG on 12/30), and maybe it’s worth briefly revisiting some history highlights of this well-loved tune that is almost 30 years old. I feel like I’ve been fortunate to see some of the best performances of this song over the years, starting with the Great Went, then later that year on 12/29 at MSG. And this one. We can get out of the way that Trey doesn’t quite nail the climb (so it’s been a while!), but do listen for the way Mike and Fish lead the band into the space right before it at around 3:40. Something is brewing here, and it’s bigger than this "Theme." Bigger than this show. Hell, bigger than this band, and also smaller than a pebble in sand, somehow at the same time, you know?
The band has had so many highlights over the years, many Trey-led masterpieces. And each member has had his moment in the sun. Rarely did they sound this balanced though, while also driving ahead with so much conviction. By the time 2/28 hit they were composing a masterpiece on the spot in this configuration, but we’ll get back to that. Anyway, this "Theme." Remember that wall of sound? By 6 or 7 minutes Trey wants to get a little darker, but just hints at first. Circles. Fish double-times and crashes, Trey’s hitting a lick and Mike is picking it up right behind him, the jam already at a mighty peak around 8 minutes, and then they shift gears. Trey descends and deconstructs it all but quickly, leaving a wailing loop in his wake, and then it's chk-chk-chk and we’re in very unique Stones-like territory for "Theme from the Bottom." Wall of sound going up, and that glorious 2003 tone raining down over it. By 11 minutes, we’re in that 2.0 mud but there’s nothing cloudy about it. By 12 it’s broken open into a Footlose-esque strut, and then Trey weaves "Theme" back into it, the rest of the band only all too happy to oblige. They close it slowly, traditionally, but then almost vocal-jam it, and out of the finale just stretch more noise, and Fish and Mike just decide to pick up a spooky pulse of a jam out of that outro, leaving it technically unfinished. I was definitely loving this Theme as it happened, and it’s still on full display why, here. Some odd vocals signal its end before Trey fires up those glorious opening licks of "Runaway Jim." The show is turning into a keeper, despite some early inconsistencies.
The "Jim" rocks, as you’d expect. Nothing epic at 11 minutes, but all the elements that were coming together alluded to above are on display here. Full band execution, peaks. You can really hear everyone’s glorious contributions so cleanly. The early Live Phish recordings are starting to shine, which got even better the next show (more on that later). Another rarity shows up in "Thunderhead," which was, until very recently, the last (and only) year it was played. It’s nice.
"Sparkle" is fun here, but also sits next to some other classics from the repertoire like "Coil" and "Character Zero," which are all fine and good, but not really what all time sets are made of—and we’d be rapidly moving into all-time set territory. The "Pebbles and Marbles" is a keeper though, like the late Set II "Waves" the night before it. The band pours a lot of emotion and power into this early performance of the song, and the result is that it almost involuntarily transforms into a blistering "Disease" jam, recalling the scorcher they open the show with in New Jersey. The energy at around 5 minutes in that dissonant chime that marks the end of the chorus is full combustion, and Trey just holds a crazy note to start it off, then a descending 99-00 wail, while Mike catches the drift and they go off. Seriously, if you’re a "P&M" fan (who isn’t?) and it’s been a while or you’ve never heard this version, do yourself a favor and dive in from the opening notes. You might be surprised by what you find in your hand.
All in all, maybe a bit of an uneven offering like the show the previous night, but like it, the highlights are very, very high. And the momentum building would lay the foundation for a two show performance that are among the band’s best back-to-back offerings ever, and my highlight of the 2.0 years. We’ll get to the first one in Part 3 ….