This is every reason you’d ever want a live album for: songs that you can’t get otherwise and songs that blow their studio version counterparts out the fuckin’ water. And – and – as opposed to a lot of other live albums, the enthusiastic audience often add to the experience: when they start clapping to Jeff Tweedy’s “You still love rock ‘n’ roll” in opener “Misunderstood,” you can guess that either Tweedy (or another band-member) did something to command that – or maybe they just fucking love rock ‘n’ roll; I know I do. Elsewhere, when Tweedy launches into a red-faced series of “NOTHING!” on the same song, the audience claps in encouragement, and when “At Least That’s What You Said” launches into its epic guitar solo, the same happens – like they know they’re witnessing history being made. (On the other hand, I’m surprised someone didn’t shoot the guy who was too excited for “Radio Cure” with a tranquilizer gun.)
Oh, and stage banter! Jeff Tweedy joking “Let’s get this party started…with some mid-tempo rock” before launching into their least rocking song was the best way to start “Jesus, etc.” Elsewhere, he puts down someone who randomly yells “KANSAS CITY!” at the end of “Hell is Chrome” with: “Thank you! Now be quiet. How dignified is it to come from Kansas City to Chicago to see Wilco?”
When I first heard Kicking Television: Live in Chicago, I didn’t think much of it: 9 of the 23 songs here (~40%) come from A Ghost is Born, which I thought was a decent if disappointing follow-up to their best (10 songs, if you include b-side “Kicking Television”). But upon closer examination, these songs are all better than their studio counterparts. The ballad half of “At Least That’s What You Said” isn’t mixed super-low to capitalize on the dynamic shift to the solo, so you don’t have to adjust volume accordingly. Elsewhere, the louder parts of songs (“At Least That’s What You Said,” “Hell is Chrome,” “Hummingbird”) or louder songs (“Kicking Television,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke)”) rock louder, seem faster and sound better in their less pristine environment. No, seriously, if you heard “Kicking Television”, you’d have no idea why it was left off A Ghost is Born, but if you heard the studio version (available on Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracks 1994-2014, you’d fully understand. Elsewhere, “Hell is Chrome” sounds uplifting, thanks especially to the harmonies post-climax, whereas the one on the studio just kind of flatlined throughout (though the solo still sucks, and the audience’s tepid applause suggests they know it too). And hearing these songs in their better renditions makes me think that there was a great album buried somewhere in A Ghost is Born: the lyric “A cheap sunset on a television set could upset her” might be Tweedy’s best.
Similarly, Being There’s “Misunderstood” is significantly improved upon: Tweedy’s voice is no longer obscured (and is thus, more emotional) and Summerteeth’s “Shot in the Arm” (a live staple) is vastly improved upon, thanks to the piano in the song’s conclusion. (“Via Chicago” also appears here to capitalize on the “Hey, that’s my city!”-feeling, but it was never that great to begin with.) Of the songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (7 out of 23, or 30%), only “I’m the Man Who Loves You” here strikes me as better than the studio version, thanks to the horns in the song’s conclusion. The rest are solid renditions, and in the case of “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart,” perhaps surprisingly so. While the gorgeous piano line in “Poor Places” is heard more clearly here, the slide guitar replacing the string of “Jesus, etc.” removes a lot of the song’s weight.
Oh yeah: I mentioned songs you can’t get anywhere else – they cover “Comment (If All Men Were Brothers).” Despite the fact that I’m a sucker for plucked strings and for the drunken sway in the way they sing the hook, it’s a bit of a dirge, actually, and the album’s worst song.