For fans of Widespread Panic, Carbondale 2000 has been a long time coming. Since the death of co-founder and original lead guitarist Michael Houser on August 10, 2002, the band has kept the archive locked up, refusing to release any full shows featuring Houser. This complete, three-disc set recorded live on December 1, 2000 at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, IL, is not only a snapshot of the band in their prime, it's the first taste of The Vault; and one assumes this means the door is now open and the sweet sounds of yesteryear will begin to pour forth. Dead Heads have Dick's Picks, Phish Heads have Live Phish and now Spread Heads have the Widespread Panic Archives.
A great deal of thought goes into choosing which live performance to release, especially when it's the first of a new series. Beyond this being a very strong show, the band selected this night because there weren't a lot of tapers in the audience and therefore this show was not traded as much as others and most folks haven't heard it with good audio quality. That and the fact that the band is greased up and rolling down the tracks with uncanny cohesion.
Whenever they start with "Let's Get Down To Business" it's a good indication that it will be a solid show, and by the time they push into the following seven-plus-minute "Tall Boy" - with a fierce jam that we just don't associate with the song anymore - it's clear this has the makings of a special night. Throughout this 22-song set, the band is loose yet sharp, moving with unbridled confidence. You need only listen to the delicate work of the ten-minute instrumental "Party At Your Mama's House" to hear a band performing with an almost telepathic connection to one another. And whatever John Bell (vocals/guitar) was drinking in 2000, I want it back in the diet. His dirty-ass guitar, disgusting tone and mean growl on "Rock" is the stuff of legend.
But what really makes this special is Houser. After six years of longing for that lingering lead, it sounds better than ever. They say you don't know what ya got till it's gone and I think they're right. Mikey's Telecaster is so free and so different it leads the band into territory they simply can't find without him. The way he and bassist Dave Schools push "Airplane" into the cosmos is like an act of nature, and his slow-burning, disturbing work on "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" is a revelation.
There are plenty of other standout moments: Schools' "Third Stone From the Sun" tease out of "Drums," Jojo Hermann's menacing keys, J.B.'s possessed vocals, the ease with which they drop from "Maggot Brain" into "Chilly Water," and the patient eruption of the "Climb To Safety" encore. But, what overwhelms us is that every song is great. This is top-to-bottom heat, no bathroom breaks or throwaways. This is Panic when they were still hungry, needing to prove something every night. This was before pancreatic cancer and new guitar players. This was Widespread Panic without all that weight; just letting it all hang out, having fun, living the dream and blowing minds - theirs included.
There's an argument to be made for every configuration of Widespread Panic and there's still plenty of high-octane petrol in the tank, but it's almost accepted as fact that the band was working on an unparalleled level from the late '90s until Houser's death. During that time period, when they were on, there was no more exciting, adventurous or powerful band on the planet. For those who were there, we can now relive the joy in perfect soundboard quality, and for those who couldn't make it, you can now go back and experience the full glory of the original band. But perhaps what's most important about the arrival of Carbondale 2000, and the Widespread Panic Archives as a whole, is the fact that Michael Houser and the entire band will be accurately represented with their best moments available for generation after generation to fall in love with again and again. Now kick open that vault and give up the goods!
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