Following a 26-month break, Phish returned on New Year’s Eve 2002 a shell of themselves. Sure, the Piper that night ripped, and sure the 46 Days and Wolfman’s Brother from the Hampton run that followed foreshadowed the deep jamming the band would engage in over the next two years, but it was clear something was awry in the early days of Phish 2.0. Fast-forward six weeks, the Phish that crossed the nation in just over two weeks would dispel any concerns about their ability to conjure up the magic of their peak period, while crafting wholly new music that would drive them forward over the next six months. While the problems that were hinted at during the reverse NYE run would ultimately come back to haunt the band during their Turkey/NYE 2x4 Run to end 2003 - and, most clearly during the Vegas Run in Spring 2004 - for two tours in early-mid 2003, the band struck creative gold in a new and profound way that still resonates to this day.
From a contextual standpoint, it’s essential to know that The Victor Disc was recorded in late-December 2002, just before the band’s MSG return. Following their appearance on Letterman, Trey & Page dipped into a midtown studio, called Mike & Phish, and jammed on loose themes for a few hours. The result was an experimentally guided session of idea-based jamming, more in line with The Siket Disc and their late-night secret festival sets than it was with any cohesive songwriting. Of note, it’s this writer's greatest wish that Phish release The Victor Disc on vinyl for Record Store Day 2020. While their Round Room sessions were certainly loose by song-crafting and mixing standards, it was The Victor Disc that would best foreshadow the director Phish was about to take their jamming in just two months time.
Just four songs into the LA Forum tour opener, the band is off and jamming in Fee, and then again, two songs later in Bathtub Gin. As the tour moved on a northeastern slant across the country, the jamming continued to develop and increase in its frequency. Night’s like February 16 in Las Vegas, February 20 in Chicago, February 22 in Cincinnati, and February 28 on Long Island contain so much excellent jamming that the shows are notated simply by their numerical dates, a highly revered signifier in the Phish community.
It’s not just that they were jamming, it’s how they were jamming during this tour. There’s a lack of focus, it’s like a 4am, hazy, idea-driven approach to the jamming. As soon as they could possible leave the structure of a song they did, tossing ideas at the wall, seeing whatever would stick, and pressing forward, damn the results. That the results were often jams like the Vegas Ghost, Chicago Seven Below, Cincinnati Gin, or Nassau Tweezer is all the more remarkable for a band still relearning what their artistic commitment meant. Whatever the inspiration for this outpouring of middle-aged, avante-tinged creativity, splattered with disillusion and ennui, it’s of a style and a sonic vibe many fans still camour for the band to return to. The darkness and the unknown of their return was the guide, and the results were some of the most inspired of their career.
Ultimately Winter 2003 represents a brief bright spot in the 2.0 experiment. Some four months later they’d return for an even more psychedelic peak, all of which would end in sadness, in a muddy field in Vermont in August 2004. For a quick window, however, it appeared as though Phish had rediscovered their magic and had established a sustainable model for long-term experimentation. Winter 2003 will always be that bright spot where the darkness seemed to guide them towards the light.