Back before their triumphant and ongoing return, before what everyone thought was the end in Coventry, before the craziness of New Year’s 2003/2004 in Miami, and even before IT Phish played what would have been the last version of Harpua. This was in the waning shows of Summer 2003 during the lead up to Limestone at Star Lake Amphitheater (sorry, it’ll always be called that to me) in Burgettstown, PA. During this post hiatus tour there were some definite hits and misses but on this night near Pittsburgh Phish played a memorable show notable for several bustouts, a stellar Croseyed and Painless, and an intriguing Harpua that mirrored many of the things going on with the band and the scene at that time.
Following a first set that saw several songs that hadn’t appeared since well prior to hiatus* and tucked into a second set that started off with a notable, hot Crosseyed, this Harpua was more than just another silly tale about a boy, his cat, and the dog that terrorized them. It was the culmination of the story up to that point. Jimmy had been up to a lot since we last heard from him back in Utah at the E Centre (where everyone was full of love after another wild trip to Vegas) and Trey was eager to fill us in on this missing chapter in Jimmy’s life.
At some point along the way, after all of his experiences with a giant iguana, the Elvii, comets, his numerous run-ins with that evil old man, and everything else Jimmy found himself directionless. As he sits there contemplating what he sees as his boring life he realizes that he is searching for something and that something is “IT” (the direct reference to the impending festival in Limestone, ME was not lost on the Burgettstown crowd, many of whom would be making the long trek north just a few days later). Admittedly, he has a lot to be thankful for but he decides he needs to go out and search for IT. Being that this is later on in Jimmy’s life a lot of what we have come to expect about Jimmy has changed, most notably that Poster and Harpua are both his pets now (remember, it’s been five of our years since our last excursion so who knows exactly how much has happened in “Jimmy Time”). So he takes Poster Nutbag and Harpua and climbs into his old truck and heads out on the road to find whatever IT is.
Stopping along the way to wallow in his own misery, Jimmy breaks out the old acoustic guitar he brought with him and dives into Bittersweet Motel to serenade his pets. This song, with its lyrical reference to the area, draws the crowd into the story even more and highlights what many would say is one of the central themes to life on the road: finding meaning in the world that seems to be passing you by. But this doesn’t help Jimmy’s situation at all, only pointing out further to him that he hasn’t found IT yet. He then decides that joining a rock band will help him on his quest and the next thing we know, Jimmy is finding IT all over the place while he travels the country with his band (gee, does this sound familiar at all?) It seems that every night he finds IT in some way or another and at this point Trey takes a couple of digs at Fishman by relating things we know to be true about Fish to Jimmy’s life (wearing the dress, lot stickers saying “Jimmy Hit on Me”, and the like).
Unfortunately, as with our troubadour heros, life on the road eventually leaves Jimmy where he was at the start of this tale. But as often happens to us all life finds a way to give Jimmy meaning and Fishman comes to the front of the stage to sing us the story of what went down with Jimmy. Debuting the old Elvin Bishop classic I Fooled Around And Fell In Love he sings a particularly fitting song for this tale, filling us all in on the latter day love of our long lasting protagonist. After a quick run through the ubiquitous HYHU jam Trey reminds us that no matter how good things in Jimmy’s life get it always ends with his cat dead and we return for the normal ending of the song, albeit without any mention of how Poster met his demise this go around.
In the end, as we all headed off from here and on to IT and everything after we got a tiny glimpse into more than just Jimmy’s later life. There are several pieces of this story that reflect Phish as a band and where they were at this point in the post hiatus world. Little did we know that only a little more than a year later we’d all be struggling to reach Coventry in a swan song that thankfully didn’t end up being our final memory of the band that taught so many of us what IT is really about. And that’s the real message of this story — whether Trey intended us to read that far into it or not. Finding IT is not easy and just as happened to Jimmy it might happen when you least expect it and are just fooling around. I’ll avoid taking this topic too deep in this write-up, but IT is something we as Phish fans often speak of and pine for from this music and life in general. If nothing else, this story provides yet another example of how the band themselves understand this.
- This version of Harpua clocks in at 20:38 from the first oom pa pa through the ending.
- It includes two songs within (Bittersweet Motel & Fooled Around and Fell in Love) along with the HYHU jam
- There had been 171 shows since the last Harpua prior to this one (11.2.1998)
* Listing how many shows between occurrences would take up a lot of space. Suffice it to say, this was not a run of the mill tour stop. Several items have been written about it and video exists for this show.