Thursday, December 01, 2005

Review: Wilco, Kicking Television (Live In Chicago)

Wilco, Kicking Television
Let's start with the bottom line: Wilco's Kicking Television (Live In Chicago) is a stellar live album. In an era when live cd's are becoming increasingly irrelevant (due in part to technological advances making it much easier for fans to make high quality tapes of concerts and distribute them online, as well as the increasing prevalence of concert DVD's), it's getting more and more rare to find a live release that is anything more than a superfluous contractual-fulfillment album. But Kicking Television is as vibrant and revelatory as the classic live albums of yore -- not exactly Live at Leeds, perhaps, but pretty great.

So what's the catch? Well, this album (recorded earlier this year) is Wilco Mach II. Gone are the days before frontman Jeff Tweedy fired guitarist Jay Bennett, when the shows were rough (but tight) and focused on their more upbeat tracks, peppered with oddball Led Zeppelin and Mott the Hoople covers and the occasional nod back to Tweedy's days in Uncle Tupelo. No, the post-2000 Wilco is a much slicker, well-oiled machine, but also a much tamer one. No covers here (save the somber gospel number at the end), no golden oldies, no surprises; almost everything comes from the last few albums, plus some songs written since 2004's A Ghost Is Born. And as I noted in reviewing that album -- a lot of their newer material can get kinda boring. As a result, parts of this 2-cd set really drag. I can't listen to, say, "Hummingbird," without my mind wandering, and thinking things like, gee, wouldn't it have been nice if they'd played "California Stars" instead? Or "Passenger Side"? Or "New Madrid"? Or... ok, you get the point. Plus that gospel closer is a real snoozer. And the title track, like the similar "I'm a Wheel" from Ghost, is yet another bland rave-up that blatantly rips off the Replacements -- not a bad band to rip off, mind you, but Tweedy has far better rave-ups in his back catalog to work with.

So why buy it? Well, the performance is great. The sound is great. And there are more than enough crowd-pleasers to outweigh the dead spots. Hell, "Misunderstood," "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart," and "Shot In The Arm" are alone worth the price of the package, and rockers like "I'm The Man Who Loves You" and "Heavy Metal Drummer" were made to be played in front of an enthusiastic crowd. Plus, some of the less memorable tracks from recent years really shine here. Take the extended drone of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" -- yes, it was one of the stand-out tracks on Ghost, but sounded out of place, like it was misplaced from a Yo La Tengo album. But live, the thing is a turn-it-up-to-11-and-feel-your-face-melt stunner. So in other words, yes, you need this album.

Incidentally, I tried to think of other great official (non-bootleg) live albums. The Who's Live At Leeds, as noted above. But what else? Phish's Slip Stitch & Pass; The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads; Television Live At The Old Waldorf (now out-of-print limited release); Grateful Dead's Live/Dead or One From The Vault or a half dozen others; probably quite a few others, but not coming to mind at the moment.


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