Kicking Television: Live In Chicago

Wilco

Nonesuch, 2005

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/27/2008

It’s hard not to classify Wilco as America’s Radiohead. Both bands started out doing relatively straightforward rock ‘n’ roll. Both released one absolutely killer album that beautifully melded straightforward rock with hints of greatness of things to come (Wilco with Summerteeth, Radiohead with The Bends). Both followed these albums with a universally lauded masterpiece. And then each band, “went off the deep end” to a segment of their fans because of their embrace of either electronica or abstract melodies. Finally, both bands proved to naysayers that their more experimental works would work just fine in live settings, despite the rather cold way they may sound on your headphones.

With 2004’s A Ghost Is Born, Wilco definitely challenged listeners. A vast majority of the album was down-tempo. For their most rocking song, “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” listeners had to wade through a dizzying ten-minutes of fuzz and violent musical shifts. And the band came dangerously close to “Revolution #9” territory with “Less Than You Think,” a song Tweedy said was partially written as a simulation of a migraine. Let me state that again: he tried to give his audience a taste of what it feels like to have a migraine with one of the songs on A Ghost is Born.

This album took a long time to grow on me. But after seeing the band live, all of the weirdness, experimentation, and subtleness of suddenly made perfect sense. One of the reasons why was because of the addition of guitarist Nels Cline. Few recent albums have benefited from a live setting as much as my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 A Ghost Is Born does. That is one reason Wilco’s double-disc live album, Kicking Television: Live In Chicago works so well. True, it is indulgent (what double-disc live album isn’t?), but it’s as essential as Wilco’s best in-studio albums.

The disc was recorded over four days at the Vic Theatre in the band’s home turf of Chicago. It’s heavy on the band’s then-most recent albums (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, A Ghost Is Born) and the sound is amazing. Tweedy’s voice is warm and inviting, but the real grabber of this album is Cline’s ferocious guitar work and Glenn Kotche’s masterful percussion.

A few old favorites make their way onto Kicking Television. Old-school Wilco fans, possibly alienated at the  band’s new direction, get a great compliment here in that the opener of the show is the leadoff track (“Misunderstood”) from their second album, Being There. Two songs from the Mermaid Avenue album are included and “Kicking Television,” the closer of A Ghost Is Born, is a riotous rocker.

Like most live albums, Kicking Television has a bit of crowd banter thrown in. Normally, this can be annoying, but few artists do banter as well as Tweedy. Listeners can faintly hear a fan saying they came from Kansas City at the end of “Hell Is Chrome.”

“Thanks for coming from Kansas City,” Tweedy says. “Now be quiet.” He isn’t finished though. He politely razzes the fan by saying, “How dignified is it to come from Kansas City to Chicago to see Wilco?”

Tweedy also jokes about the band’s new direction. “Let’s get this party started!...with some midtempo rock and roll!”

If you’re going by quality, the first disc has far more scratches than the second. Disc one has a more balanced ratio of straightforward rock and midtempo subtleness. But disc two is worth a spin just for the amazing live version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” Tweedy and Cline trade riffs with the intensity of a pro tennis match with Kotche and bassist John Stirratt not missing a beat.

2005 also saw the release of another double-disc live album from another artist that is known for using elements of country in their music and challenging fans. And like Wilco, Lucinda Williams’ Live At The Fillmore was a validation that the newer material that may have confounded fans could easily stand beside the more popular (read: older) material. Four discs of live material may seem like a lot to digest in one year, but both Live At The Fillmore and Kicking Television were great albums that went beyond the “for fans only” tag that is usually attached to live albums.

Rating: A-

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