Having re-established their creative center in February, the band took the spring to refocus on their individual projects that’d been so essential to their hiatus. Mike made a film, Page recorded with The Spam Allstars, Fishman remastered his drumming, and Trey took TAB out on their road for one final statement tour. Building off of the successes of the 2001, and, especially, 2002 TAB tours, Trey refined the sound of his solo project while expanding jams throughout the 10-Day run. The 5/31 show in San Francisco with Carlos Santana, the Way I Feel from 6/5 in Chicago, and the Night Speaks To A Woman from 6/7 in Burlington showcased Trey in a new light. Incorporating ideas from his TAB-mates, he pushed his songs into the unknown, while listening and reacting to the conversation around him. These forays into individual creative tendencies would prove essential when Phish hit the road in early July.
In the same spirit as their 1997, 1998, and 2015 Summer Tours, 2003 was a month-long affair that crossed the country before concluding at a festival which would historically define the overall tour and sound. Sonically, Summer 2003 is in a world all its own. The band had rediscovered their focus in February, and all reports state it was a sober tour. They let the music guide them, often stepping on stage without an idea of what song to play until the moment they began playing it. They jammed and jammed and jammed. The jams are what defines the tour. The Chula Vista DWD, Shoreline Gin, Gorge Seven Below, Utah Mr. Completely, Alpine DWD & Piper, Deer Creek Gumbo, Split Open & Melt and Scents & Subtle Sounds, Charlotte Hood, Raleigh Ghost, Burgettstown Crosseyed, Camden Scents, Twist, Piper and Hood, and so many more in between. The jams led them from stop to stop, show to show, and allowed for a deeper musical conversation to take hold within the band. Nearly four years on from their Big Cypress performance, the band was older now, they’d seen and experience shit. The reasons for doing what they did wasn’t as clear as it was in the 90’s, and yet here they were, pushing through, allowing their music to guide them to some unforeseen destination. That it would ultimately lead them to the ominous finale of 2004 only makes the musical accomplishments of Summer 2003 that much more intriguing.
For much of the tour, the band put all their efforts into their improvisation. As a result, aside from July 9 at Shoreline, July 15 in Utah and July 23 at Deer Creek, the band never strung together a complete show for the first few weeks of tour. Segments and sets were often brilliant, but the reason why one returns to the early part of Summer 2003 is for the jams that showcased the band at their best. All of this changed following a challenging gig in Raleigh that exposed internal struggles within the band, and an off-night that was highlighted by the band exploring some of their rarer tunes by way of shiny new ipods loaded with old shows.
Beginning in Burgettstown on July 29 and continuing through Camden and the IT Festival, the band played as close to a perfect week as anyone had heard from them since the June 28-July 4, 2000 run. Every single show is worth hearing in full. The jams that emerged from within are markedly bigger and more creatively pulsating than anything played during the tour’s first three weeks. Setlist construction is as masterful as it once was in the mid-90s, and the band sounded refined, intuitively focused, and in clear command of their every move.
When they arrived in Limestone for their third and - to this point - final festival in northern Maine, the band was at their greatest peak since Fall 1997, and the last best representation we’d hear of them for a decade. Listening back, it’s clear from their Soundcheck on August 1 that they were on a creative high, and that all their focus on improvisational communication & personal well-being was paying off. The Ya Mar, Reba, Birds Of A Feather, Meatstick, Limb By Limb, Down With Disease, Waves, Rock & Roll -> Seven Below -> Scents & Subtle Sounds -> Spread It ‘Round from the festival’s first three sets all contributed to one of the five best shows of the era, and one of the strongest all-around Phish shows of all time. In the middle of the night, the band climbed atop the abandoned control tower and directed their creative instincts into the ether. An hour of free-form improvisation, The Tower Jam, it’s right there with 1998’s Ambient Jam, and 2015’s Drive-In Jam as the band’s greatest late-night musical accomplishments. When they re-took the stage on August 3, Chalk Dust Torture, Ghost, and 46 Days each built upon the musical risks taken the previous night, and showcased the musical high the band was at.
The conclusion of the Summer 2003 Tour was bittersweet in that in the moment, and listening back some 16 years later, we hear a band that’s turned the corner once more. And yet, we all know it would be the relative last gasp for a band before they moved fully into the darkness, died as a musical unit, before being reborn some six years later. There’s so much hope, so much possibility in their playing and in their jams, yet, one has to wonder, if the lingering darkness were removed, if any of this would have been possible in the first place.