Wilco requires absolutely no introduction. With each of their accomplished seven albums they have honed their signature alt-country sound to become a contemporary paradigm of rock — and they’ve got two Grammys to prove it. While the band has certainly produced weaker albums in the past, rarely does a release disappoint both fans and critics. “Kicking Television: Live in Chicago,” recorded from their four sold-out hometown shows at the Vic Theatre last May, is no exception. Wilco’s ebullient energy and impressive talent shine on the new recording to make for an entertaining and poignant concert experience.
The band’s first official live CD is the latest installment in the ever-changing Wilco journey. After losing multi-instrumentalist Leroy Bach in January 2004 and picking up keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, guitarist Nels Cline and guitarist/keyboardist Pat Sansone, Wilco is performing “the best it has ever felt,” as said by front man extraordinaire Jeff Tweedy in the Detroit Free Press.
Recorded from last year’s “A Ghost is Born” tour, the new dual-disc collection relies heavily on tracks from that emotive 2004 album. The live version of “Hell is Chrome,” complete with Tweedy’s wispy, yearning vocals and piercing guitars, is even more aching than the original. Similarly, the band delivers a faithful rendition of “Handshake Drugs” supplemented by a bouncy and experimental guitar riff. Most impressive however, is the standout “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” on which the band jams for a freewheeling eleven minutes, giving the song new vitality without any self-indulgent pretense.
Meanwhile, some of the “Ghost” adaptations are less inspiring. The band decides to scrap the suspenseful piano on “At Least That’s What You Said” and foolishly delves too quickly into the song’s noisy guitar finale. Similarly, the band missteps on “Hummingbird” — the inappropriately peppy live recording leaves something to be desired. At the same time, the droning “The Late Greats” and sleepy “Muzzle of Bees” insufferably lack the enthusiasm of the album’s highlights.
The best adaptations on “Kicking Television” come from (no surprises here) the 2002 epic “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” A melodic piano gently encourages Tweedy’s aching vocals on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” ultimately resulting in an uproarious swell of effusive instrumentals. The album turns a contemplative cheek with the bluesy “Jesus, Etc.,” but picks right up again with the buoyant “I’m the Man That Loves You.” The former is impeccably enhanced by the audience’s nostalgic, off-tempo hum, while the latter is enriched by a buzzing guitar and a surge of horns.
Wilco’s lesser-known collaborations with Billy Bragg (“Mermaid Avenue Vol. I and II”) augment “Kicking Television” as well. The peacefully dreamy vocals of “One by One” reinforce a pleasant guitar and sweeping keys, outshining other “Ghost” tracks of similar sentiment. Furthermore, the country guitar and languid harmonies of “Airline to Heaven” give the second disc a more diverse sound. Finally, Wilco closes the album with a cover of Charles Wright and the Watts Third Street Choir’s “Comment.” Beginning with a cautiously creeping guitar, the song evolves into a rousing and soulful ode to brotherhood.
Since it was spliced together from four live shows, “Kicking Television” regrettably lacks cohesion. Nevertheless, Wilco’s new renditions of enduring classics combined with Tweedy’s humorous commentary make for a downright awesome concert experience. And we didn’t even have to pay for a ticket.