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Report from 35 Conferette — Day 4

If hip hop in general is difficult for me to navigate, Dallas hip hop, in particular, is especially so.  There is no precise reputation to precede it.  There are no names that stand as authoritative beyond that of Erykah Badu, and the contours of her own work are ungovernable by almost any description.  Maybe it’s this way everywhere, but it certainly piques my interest about Damaged Good$, a Dallas-based hip hop duo who drew an early afternoon position on the festival’s primary stage.

The men Theo and Coool (sic) make up Damaged Good$ who frequently employ DJ Joey in their sets.  The three had a picayune crowd to contend with, maybe 10 bodies at first, quietly lolling in the afternoon sun.  But where some would see disappointing circumstance, Damaged Good$ relish a herculean task: “how do we get 10 people bouncing like it’s their last moment alive?”

Predictably, as DJ Joey sent out a subterranean bass woof, the audience began to swell, though the number still corresponded to a festival crowd struggling to blink their way into another day.  Not only did Damaged Good$ have a diminutive congregation to deal with, but a chronically shorting wireless microphone.  And I am here to testify that they did not miss a beat.  Damaged Good$ have barrelsful of relentless poise and a sound barrier-wrecking, spitfire flow.  The stage could not contain them and they wandered into the crowd, knocking into the now enlivened bodies all pogo-ing in unison.

Rapper and Damaged Good, Theo, afterward acknowledged that Dallas rap is something of a cagey enterprise.  For their part, Damaged Good$ do not feel particularly connected to any point of it and especially not points where it is insincere, albeit successful, “dance hip hop.”  Damaged Good$ are on their own, hip hop mercenaries operating without anyone’s approval or sanction, reckless harbingers of breakneck rhyme.

I suppose here would be the place to acknowledge the 2011 35 Conferette’s penultimate moment: the headlining performance of Big Boi.  I would hate for this to be misunderstood.  Everything Big Boi did was spot on.  The resurrected Outkast tunes were particularly satisfying.  But I wanted a seat and a cold beer as much as I wanted to hear “Bombs Over Baghdad.”  Author and music appreciator Nick Hornby once defended leaving a Led Zeppelin concert for a bowl of spaghetti, so I feel perfectly all right saying I left Big Boi for a pint of Fireman’s 4.

Once I entered Sweetwater, something of a standoff developed between the 35 Conferette and myself, the former attempting to woo me outdoors with promises of Hyde from That 70s Show spinning records and me stubbornly refusing to budge after three days pacing every brick of Denton’s courthouse square.  A fortunate contention, considering I would otherwise not have encountered Portland’s Viva Voce.

Viva voce are miraculously thunderous for a duo.  Anita and Kevin Robinson comprise the group, he on drums et al, she on guitar.  Anita maintains a copious set of guitar pedals, a practice she admits can prove sometimes cumbersome.  The various wires and pathways and batteries keeping the Frankenstein alive do not always cooperate in every venue.  The assemblage proves only that she’s meticulous about achieving the sound in her head, which is funny because Viva Voce sounds like what’s in my head.  What an odd, prophetic, knee-bending gladness to hear what I could not conceive repeated back to me.

Some composers want to seduce, intimidate or sadden you, all for different and genuine reasons.  There are others still who seem as if they want to make you run or assay your fear of heights or walk, sneakers-first, out into bodies of water like they were wide esplanades.  Viva Voce is of this rare, vivified class.  The pair, tempered from 13 years of writing and performing, indelicately cracks the sky apart with the sound they propel.

After the harried overdose of the weekend, it was blessedly strange to end with Damien Jurado ruefully plucking at his guitar.  Jurado’s pensive strain was a stunningly unique contradiction to the ceaseless volume of the past few days.  He squints as he sings, like he is constantly thrown back by the light of some realization.  Jurado is reverential, treating every word as if it is some fragile bit of porcelain.  It is proof only of my caprice that I will not tolerate this melodic tip-toeing with others but am amazed when it is Jurado.  Perhaps I was just feeling ragged and sleepless and Damien Jurado’s dulcet notes struck me with an unintended affection.  Or maybe every one of Jurado’s utterances really does saunter like a paraclete into anxious and disconsolate souls.  In any case, it was a right ending to a worn-out, but satisfying 35 Conferette.