While their shows have always been received favorably by fans, Wilco has not built its reputation as a live band. And nothing on the new live album, culled from a four-night stand at Chicago's Vic Theatre earlier this year, is remarkable enough to be logged in the annals of rock history.
Does that condemn Kicking Television to an eternity in used record bins? Not quite. The band's unusual charisma and longstanding appeal will ensure that, if not critically lauded, the album will be a guaranteed hit among die-hard fans.
Kicking Television succeeds largely as a testament to the strength of the band's new six-man lineup. The material from 2004's A Ghost Is Born, which makes up the majority of the tracks here, sounds tighter and more focused. "Handshake Drugs" is dramatically improved with some added guitar lines and a more upbeat tempo. Jeff Tweedy and company veer a little too much into experimental territory on the sloppy "Spiders (Kidsmoke)," but even this misstep has its exciting moments when the crowd is palpably engaged. Though the band doesn't exactly reinterpret tracks from previous albums (save for some creative violin-replication on the excellent "Jesus, Etc."), it approaches them with newfound energy.
The problem with Kicking Television, more than anything else, is packaging. For one, the title track, an original which should be the album's centerpiece, is the weakest -- by far -- of the collection and only interrupts the overall momentum. The decision to choose the "best" tracks from the four separate shows may also have been a mistake. Each show featured three encores, the last date clocking in at an astounding 36 songs. Putting one of those performances in its entirety on tape -- even if some individual tracks were a bit weaker than on other nights -- would have been a more honest representation of Wilco live in concert.
Not that Kicking Television doesn't feel authentic. The recording captures well the excitement of the crowd and some amusing, off-the-cuff stage banter. But it works best as a snapshot of a band at an especially inspired moment in its career -- a time capsule with which to judge what Wilco goes on to produce in the years ahead.