Wilco’s Kicking Television is another important step forward for a band quickly becoming the indie-rock Rolling Stones. Far from a stopgap release, this live album is the casual Wilco fan’s introduction to lead guitarist Nels Cline. Cline, who joined the band after they recorded 2004’s A Ghost is Born, plays the Ron Wood role and singlehandedly revitalizes Wilco’s dynamic. Widely considered one of the best jazz guitarists in the world, he’s made this the finest live incarnation of the band in their 10-year existence.
Recorded during a sold-out run of shows in May 2005 at Chicago’s Vic Theatre, Kicking Television‘s two discs are heavy in more recent material. A Ghost is Born, considered somewhat of a letdown after The Daily’s top album of the new millennium (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) has benefited greatly from time on the road.
The songs hold their ground next to earlier material, and the B-side title track proves that Wilco isn’t burning out any time soon.
Other highlights include the rollicking “Handshake Drugs,” and the Can-esque “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” where Cline and frontman Jeff Tweedy trade burning solos over a song that has evolved into a live staple. Showcasing his trademark dry humor during selected bits of between-song banter, Tweedy alternates between sheltered witticisms and naked emotion, melting them together and accurately recreating the Wilco live experience – despite the fact these songs were culled from a series of shows.
Not only does Wilco sound great, but the songs are mixed perfectly, with just the right amount of grit and grime. When Tweedy tears into “I’m The Man Who Loves You,” every bit of the jolting electricity he conveys emanates from his Gibson SG. While the vast majority of the songs are from the band’s two Nonesuch releases, earlier material is faithfully recreated; “Misunderstood” and “Shot in the Arm” sound as fresh as they did the day they were written. The Billy Bragg/Wilco one-off “One by One” provides a nice change of pace, while the cover of ’60s LA funk great Charles Wright’s “Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers)” ends the album on an upbeat.
But where Kicking Television succeeds the most is putting the Ghost is Born material in perspective. The band will never be the same as the one that cut the album they can never top, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, nor can they go back to the alt-country heyday of Being There. They can, however, keep evolving with Tweedy as the passionate center and Cline as the catalyst with the technical skill to push his compositions over-the-top. Kicking Television is the sound of a band forging ahead, getting better all the time.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars