Kicking Television: Live in Chicago
eports of Wilco’s demise have been largely exaggerated. Specifically, the dad-rock stones hurled in the band’s direction are frustratingly misguided. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot contained legitimate treks through noisy sound collage. The decidedly thinner follow-up, A Ghost is Born, slowed the melodies to a virtual halt and the ensuing tour added avant-composer Nels Cline on guitar, who pushed the band further into string-scraping jams. If anything, Ghost seems to push aside the easy melodic fix; it’s impossible to say whether a molasses track like “At Least That’s What You Said” would sound like with a more robust arrangement, but it’s difficult to think that it wouldn’t be able to sit alongside the band’s catchiest moments. Instead, it shoves aside the vocals for a forward-thinking guitar scrub.
All this hardly makes Wilco sonic extremists, but it’s illogical to accuse them of MOR blandness now, especially after the alt-countryisms of Being There and the unabashed pop intentions of Summerteeth failed to draw the same ire. If Jeff Tweedy can get the NPR-crowd to sit through the coda of “Poor Places,” more power to him.
Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, a double-disc live jaunt drawing material from a four shows at Chicago’s Vic Theatre last May, finds the band again treading the line between legitimate noise experiments and stay-at-home indie rock. Anyone who attended a show on this tour will know that Wilco shows are now somewhat of an event, with every hipster in town showing up and Tweedy playing the part of rock frontman. Appropriately, the feeling’s no different here, with the band suiting up their best tracks for a lengthy homestand.
The band is in its element here, confident enough to open with fan-favorite “Misunderstood,” which pales both musically and lyrically to everything the band has released in the last five years. From there, though, the band draws liberally from Ghost and YHF, mixing in occasional tracks from Summerteeth and the Mermaid Avenue sessions. Though the fiery Cline adds muscle to tracks like “Muzzle of Bees” and “Handshake Drugs,” there is little ammo here for either the band’s detractors or their champions. Most songs find the band holding serve, and that’s easily Television’s biggest disappointment. “Radio Cure” benefits from a more assertive climax, and “I’m the Man Who Loves You” finds a more aggressive rhythmic fix, but the band doesn’t roll the dice nearly often enough.
That’s not to say that some of these songs aren’t marked improvements on their studio versions. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” doesn’t live up to its pre-Ghost on-stage orgy—still the victim of a too-persistent bass bubble—but it sheds much of its art-rock pretension here and morphs into the 11-minute send-up it was destined to be. “Hell is Chrome,” a tragically underrated lyric, is more assertive, its “Come with me” trance more hypnotic and vibrant. “Kicking Television,” the b-side from which the album draws its title, exposes Tweedy’s Minutemen jones and burns joyously at the end of the first disc.
Juxtaposed against the album’s resound art-rock tendencies, the pop roll of “Shot in the Arm” is a killer change-up, and a slightly subdued reading of “Via Chicago” reminds the audience who their home team is. The band closes the second disc—and presumably, one of the shows—with Charles Wright’s “Comment (If All Men are Truly Brothers),” its triumphant chorus is a bright communal carol.
The complete lack of subtext here is refreshing—less so than on their reaching albums, the live Wilco is a rock band and nothing more. The jamming may bore some, but it rarely stretches too long. Tweedy is a charismatic and unifying frontman; his band, and the audience, follows his lead throughout the two discs. If all of this makes Wilco a little like the indie rock Dave Matthews Band—a loose live presence with a diverse audience—then so be it. Kicking Television is consistent, professional, and unapologetically inclusive. It’s also a uniformly strong testament from one of rock’s most endearing acts, capable of producing both heady noise jams and shameless lighter-wavers. At a base level, Wilco is a singular songwriter surrounded by a creative supporting cast. Their status as relevant artists or chumpy also-rans is a matter of perspective, but Kicking Television dutifully showcases their live strengths and makes a legitimate plea for the former.