The Great (Live) Albums: Wilco’s ‘Kicking Television: Live in Chicago’

The Great (Live) Albums is a bimonthly look at some of the best—or at least most interesting—live recordings in pop music history. How do these odd documents fit in with an artist’s overall discography? What do they teach us about the history of rock? Let’s find out!

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Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, Wilco (2005, Nonesuch)

Anyone interested in listening to music on a critical level is also probably interested, to some degree, in sonic experimentation. People like us crave weird noises made with weird objects and recorded in weird ways—like dynamiting a harpsichord inside a goddamn volcano or whatever. Part of this is because of the practical results of such efforts, the sheer enjoyment of hearing unusual sounds. But an even bigger part of it, I think, is the air of esoteric drama surrounding these strange acts, the whole “I-can’t-believe-they-did-that” of it all.

That said: you can’t gimmick your way out of good songwriting, no matter how many flugelhorns, rain sticks, or Fischer-Price keyboards you encase in probiotic gelatin and eat whole with microphone forks. Sorry, Polyphonic Spree. Luckily for Wilco, the venerable Chicago indie band occupies the perfect Venn diagram overlap between aural eccentricity and bulletproof singer-songwriter chops. Or at least they did at their peak—the period stretching from 1999’s Summerteeth all the way through 2004’s druggy A Ghost is Born.

Between those two records of course sits 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a landmark American rock music—so ambitious in its experimentation that it famously got the band fired from its record label. After Foxtrot Wilco would settle into a more amiable dad-rock elder-statesman role that (let’s face it) hasn’t been that interesting. But before they nestled into sweet, sweet decrepitude Wilco capped its imperial period with Kicking Television: Live in Chicaco, a two-disc set recorded across four shows at the Windy City’s Vic Theater May 4-7, 2005.

The band—frontman Jeff Tweedy, bassist John Stirratt, drummer Glenn Kotche, multi-instrumentalists Nels Cline and Pat Sensone, and keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen—had initially filmed the concerts for a DVD release but eventually ditched the idea, reportedly because Tweedy felt the edited footage “sapped” the material of is onstage energy. And though fully 16 of Kicking Television’s 23 tracks hail from Foxtrot and Ghost, album opener “Misunderstood” goes back further, to the band’s early-career breakthrough, the double-disc alt country set Being There, released in 1996.

Lurching out of the gates with a stoner-metal plod before pulling back into understated ballad territory, “Misunderstood” eventually works itself back up to a cacophonous noise rock din as Tweedy fitfully screams the word “Nothing!” 36x in a row. The effect is a little bit like Sideshow Bob stepping on the rakes: repetitive, dumb, even dumber, and then eventually sublime (the crowd really starts to perk up somewhere around “Nothing” #30 or so.)

The next four tracks are all from the underrated A Ghost is Born: “Company in My Back,” “The Late Greats,” “Hell is Chrome,” and “Handshake Drugs.” They’re all really good, but “Drugs” is the best, with Stirratt earning the MVP trophy with his rubbery bass fills. Then comes Foxtrot’s standout first track, “I am Trying to Break Your Heart.” The most instructive thing here is just how faithfully this live version reproduces the album recording’s many odd sonic tics. As a non-musician I’ve always imagined these extraneous bits of texture to be somewhat haphazardly, with Tweedy & Co. just throwing a whole bunch of shit against the wall to see what sticks. But the fact that the song is so faithfully recreated implies a far greater degree of intentionality behind these moments—a dense aural tapestry that’s been rigorously fussed over, road-tested, and rubber-stamped.

Other Disc One highlights include Tweedy’s ultra Neil Young-y lead guitar (no skimping on the slap-back echo here) on “At Least That’s What You Said,” and the raucous title cut, the punkish B-side “Kicking Television.”

 Back cover and full track listing of 'Kicking Television: Live in Chicago'

Back cover and full track listing of 'Kicking Television: Live in Chicago'

Disc Two opens with the melancholic Summerteeth track “Via Chicago,” building—as many songs on the album do—to a messy, noisy denouement. Two songs later is one of my own personal favorites, A Ghost is Born’s “Muzzle of Bees,” which begins as a quiet folk finger-plucker before the entrance of a slippery descending keyboard. The song then splits in two, turning into a twitchy hard-rock nightmare that itself then morphs into a sort of desultory stadium epic.

Next are two songs from the Mermaid Avenue sessions, Wilco’s “collaboration” with a posthumous Woody Guthrie and the (living) British folk singer Billy Bragg: “One by One” and “Airline to Heaven.” It’s a nice, easy listening respite from the experimental clatter and din of the album thus far. This segues into the nostalgic sweetness of “Heavy Metal Drummer,” made all the more charming by a slight drum-machine-trigger fuck-up at the song’s end.

Kicking Television ends with another high, an 11-minute rendition on the bifurcated A Ghost is Born epic “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”, part unrelenting krautrock groove, part hair metal banger, each half perfectly circular, like you could play (or listen) to them forever and never get tired. The set then wraps with the lounge-y Charles Wright cover “Comment (If All Men are Truly Brothers)”—a great end-of-the-night song, sending the Windy City Wilcoholics back out onto the streets with an only semi-ironic message of friendship and hope.

One of the hardest things to perfectly nail as a music fan is to catch a band live at their apex. Seeing bands before they break or as legacy acts can be fun. But the best is seeing an artist at the absolute height of their relevance. I never got it together to see Wilco in the mid-aughts, but there’s at least Kicking Television.

-Matt Warren (@mpmwarren)