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Memorial Hall, Sunday, March 5, 2006


Before the lights dimmed in Memorial Hall on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus Sunday night, the excitement was palpable among Wilco fans. The band was about to play the first of two immediate sellouts in the recently refurbished venue. The stately interior added a touch of timeless grace to the proceedings: soft mocha and off-white walls accented with regal moldings, stone tablets bearing the names of Confederate dead, the stage's peaks erupting into a sky-blue ceiling jeweled with chandeliers. In fact, Memorial's pristine surroundings suggested an imminent opera, not America's pre-eminent roots rock band.

Once under way on the first night of the tour, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy had some laughs with the crowd. When someone yelled, "Duke sucks," Tweedy shrugged, and said, sheepishly, "Yeah, except if we're playing at Duke, right?" Then he acknowledged the rivalry, "I know that's blasphemy here, but hey, we're on your side ... Think that's all I'm gonna say tonight."

It wasn't all, though, as Wilco moved through crowd-pleasers exemplifying their accessibility, both as people and in their songs' directness. In an age of new music, electronic or otherwise, Wilco is grounded in traditional music, the absence of many technological gee gaws apparent on stage. The band's immense success with rough pop and shot-to-the-heartbreak lyrics comes accented by the swells and noisy explosions of guitarist Nels Cline, whose short hair rises in shocks that make him look more like Ivan Lendl than an avant-rock musician.

The connection between the band and its fans was reflected best in the eyes of a toddler from the audience who Tweedy held above his head on stage. while she sang all the words to a song. "I remember you from Asheville. Well, I'm glad you still like us," he said.

As artificial mist rose past the balcony along with the band's notes, to the blue ceiling, Tweedy joked about rock volume's effects on her tender ears (accentuated in the hall's astounding acoustics) by praising the young fan's ear plugs, "That's good, because you've only got a few years of hearing left."

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