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No experience necessary for Wilco’s live masterpiece

Observer Scene | Thursday, December 1, 2005

It is frustrating losing count of how many times Jeff Tweedy screams “nothing” at the end of “Misunderstood,” the opening track on Wilco’s live double-CD masterpiece.

But that’s just about the only frustration in listening to all 117 minutes of “Kicking Television – Live in Chicago.” The album successfully captures the power of Wilco’s unforgettable live performances and serves as an example of how Wilco’s sophisticated creativity has only increased since the mid ’90s.

Of the 23 tracks, 17 songs are from Wilco’s latest two efforts, “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2002) and “A Ghost Is Born” (as well as the bonus EP, 2004). Much like the recent studio releases, the tone of the set tips the balance towards the serious side of Wilco by calling up songs like “Radio Cure” and “Ashes of American Flags” from “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” rather than the more playful “War on War” or “Kamera.”

From “A Ghost Is Born,” the set gives the nod to “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” a phenomenal 11-minute jam, and the harmless “Muzzle of Bees,” while the radio single from the album, “Theologians,” is left backstage.

The unique set decisions make the album exciting for people who already witnessed Wilco in concert, too. But the sincerely grateful band saves room for fan favorites “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “Shot in the Arm.” While not all the selections are popular, there isn’t a bad song throughout. With the tune selection, Wilco seduces all audiences – dedicated fans as well as newcomers – as any good live album should.

The transitions between the tracks are another area within Wilco’s expertise worth studying. Tweedy turns a crowd from grief to euphoria in a matter of seconds with the quick and clean transition between the lethargic “Ashes of American Flags” to the recognizable and bouncy “Heavy Metal Drummer.” He later carries the crowd toward sympathy again with “Poor Places” (“They cried all over overseas”) and leads it through a labyrinth of feedback to the repetitive, introductory beat of “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”

The set appropriately concludes with “Comment,” a peaceful song delicately arranged with strings, organ and xylophone while Tweedy’s vocals range between a gentle falsetto and gospel-style screaming. The tune shows that through the drug addictions, record label struggles and other problems, Wilco still has a message – “If all men are truly brothers / why then do we hurt one another? / Love peace from ocean to ocean / Somebody please second my emotion.”

The album as a whole completes its purpose – when it ends, it leaves the listener wanting to hear more but not to the extent that the CD is disappointingly short.

Wilco is one of the few bands of their status that can pull off playing nine songs (and five of the first six) “off the new album” in a live show and still look good doing it. If Neil Diamond tried that arrangement, his audience would be gone before he even played “Cherry, Cherry.”

At the release of each album, critics claim the moment must be Wilco’s peak, but the mature men from Chicago keep proving everyone wrong. “Kicking Television: Live in Chicago” is no exception. It is the perfect time for Wilco fans to appreciate their legacy, and it’s an even better time for people who have never acquainted themselves with “the greatest band that never had a hit” to join.