Kicking Television: Live in Chicago
Despite all its acclaim, Wilco has never been the kind of act whose live shows inspire the ecstatic buzz that people associate with great rock bands. That changed on the group's last tour: The creative ferment that yielded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (and gave bandleader Jeff Tweedy so much indigestion in the rock doc I Am Trying to Break Your Heart) spilled over into Wilco's stagecraft. This time around, Tweedy also had the genius notion to hire on Nels Cline as an extra ax man. The Los Angeles guitarist, who straddles the worlds of indie rock and experimental note-bending, is a cult hero to fret freaks. And he's a large part of what makes Wilco's first concert album—recorded over four nights at Vic Theatre last spring—so compelling.
While Tweedy chose to can Television's accompanying DVD, claiming the footage didn't properly reflect the group's live shows, the audio's in prime shape. It's exciting to hear Wilco not only revisit some of its most emotionally affecting material (primarily drawn from Foxtrot and last year's A Ghost Is Born), but reinvent it, as well. The pyrotechnics add a glorious jamminess to the slow fade of "Ashes of American Flags," for instance, and elsewhere, calling to mind Neil Young in high fever. But they also fit in perfectly with Wilco's loose, shambling group dynamic, balancing Tweedy's penchant for the dour or bittersweet. Songs that were already jaunty, like "I'm the Man that Loves You" and "Heavy Metal Drummer," suddenly aspire to rollicking anthem status—even though Wilco has to be the least-anthemic semipopular rock band in North America. That's no mean feat. It gives Tweedy's impressionistic lyrics fresh punch and clarity. For Wilco, it's like an upgrade from black-and-white to color—and good enough to tide you over until the new album next year.—Steve Dollar