By Mark Guarino
At this year’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, Jeff Tweedy had one request: “Scream along with Wilco.” “Wilco usually doesn’t come begging for audience participation,” the band’s songwriter-guitarist told the crowd, before admitting: “I like this groveling thing.”
The Chicago-based rock experimentalists endured many incarnations since dispatching from Uncle Tupelo in 1995. In all its forms, Wilco successfully blended ragged Americana with swirling psychedelics, but as a live outfit, the band has never so forcefully worked the crowd over like it does today. This new phase of Wilco enjoys the highest profile and the biggest accolades and it shows. With Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt as the only two founding originals left, the ballooned line-up of six is the most aggressive, dense and professionally minded since the beginning.
That new energy is the heart and soul of “Kicking Television: Live in Chicago” (Nonesuch), a two-disc live album in stores today. Recorded at the Vic over a four-day stint in May of this year, the album is different from most live sets in that it’s not inconsequential and makes a deeper statement than just filling bins for the holiday season. Instead, “Kicking Television” documents how Wilco has grown to become a much more dynamic live band than they ever have proved to be in the studio.
The two chief players that helped this band turn that corner are guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotche. While Tweedy’s stoned vocals — and occasional shrieks — continue to give his songs sadness and frailty, the songs are toughened and, in some cases, pushed to the brink of becoming emotionally shattered. Near the end of the otherwise subdued song “Muzzle of Bees,” Cline rips through with a dense and circular solo that glistens wildly, bringing to mind shards of glass exploding in the sunlight. On “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” Kotche displays his talent for continually bringing something interesting to the table through wildly different fills that are all persistent, but precise. These are rare cases where the live versions surpass their recorded cousins.
The dramatic peaks and bubbling lows of this album shift perfectly. The band is insistent on instantly revealing moods, then ripping them away a second later. It’s most expected on Tweedy’s more numbing introspection, but on those ridiculous throwaways — “I’m working on my abs/I’m working on me!!!” on the title song, a rant on consumer culture — the band’s slams down hard.
More than half the songs are plucked from the band’s last two albums, although there are two from the Billy Bragg “Mermaid Avenue” collaboration. Expect no big statements here other than the choice to close the set with “Comment,” by L.A. soul music great Charles Wright. By far the most conventional song of the set, Wilco slows it down so that its plea — “Society how can you teach/if you don’t practice what you preach?” — rings loud and clear.