After the wave of praise and goodwill that followed the release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it was almost inevitable that Wilco’s follow-up would suffer from heightened expectations. Indeed, when A Ghost Is Born was released in 2004, the reception was a comparative shrug.
It should be apparent that Kicking Television: Live in Chicago is an attempt to revisit A Ghost Is Born and perhaps persuade Wilco’s followers that the songs are worth another listen. Ten of Ghost‘s thirteen tracks are included in this two-disc set, and the set list is weighted heavily toward the more recent albums, reaffirming the band’s evolution away from the “No Depression” scene that Wilco founder Jeff Tweedy had a hand in creating.
Twang is now in short supply in the Wilco repertoire. The band’s sound has moved toward a more insular, experimental feel. The music’s still firmly rooted in folk, but the albums have relied increasingly on various production bells and whistles. Kicking Television, therefore, is able to provide a solid litmus test for Tweedy’s actual songwriting, stripped of its hermetically sealed studio trappings.
Culled from recordings at the Vic Theatre in May 2005, the live treatment does serve the newer songs justice. Tweedy’s vocals are brought to the forefront, providing a warmth and passion that wasn’t previously there. There is an additional urgency to many of the tracks as well: “Handshake Drugs,” which pleasantly ambles along in the studio version, is now propelled by an immediate, driving guitar attack, bringing out the darker subtext of the lyrics. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” feels even looser here, still building its tension relentlessly and grandly boiling over several times.
If the electric-guitar-heavy A Ghost Is Born is Wilco’s Rust Never Sleeps, Kicking Television is its Live Rust, and as the band ventures further into Crazy Horse territory, the comparison is apt. Tweedy embraces the kick-ass guitar solo in a way that has certainly been unfashionable over the last decade or so, and like Neil Young he can take an occasional jam over the ten-minute mark with out seeming overindulgent. Whatever the constantly changing Wilco’s legacy becomes, Kicking Television manages to both validate A Ghost Is Born and provide an indelible document of a tremendous live band at its peak.
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