If you approach the Teragram Ballroom from the East, down 7th street, with the empty skyscrapers of Downtown looming behind you, you’ll pass by Garland Avenue to your left. On the corner is a liquor store and across the street are new apartments that try their best to look like places someone would want to live. If you look down Garland, you might think that it’s a dead end, that the street mysteriously evaporates a hundred yards down the block. You can see the horizon of the asphalt like a black tide and behind it a curtain of lights from the glitterin mid-city below. The street falls off, and pitches downward towards a little depressed section of LA that has yet to be named–northeast of Pico Union and south of Westlake. Just above it is 7th street and the bright, blue lined marquee of the Teragram Ballroom.
Parking is plentiful if you are willing to pay around the Teragram. There is a $15 lot directly across the street and cheaper lots only a block away. You can find street parking, but I recommend coming early, otherwise prepare yourself for a long search and walk.
I got to the Teragram around 8:30 for a show that was supposed to start at 9. The line to get in was wrapped around the block, past the open front of Rosa’s Mini Mart where they sell conchas for sixty-nine cents apiece. The line is unusual for the Teragram, a mid-level club usually featuring bands still attempting to break through, but Robert Glasper is a special kind of artist. Fans waited anxiously. A few asked for extra tickets. One guy commented on the length of the line, “this is LA." It’s to be expected.
There was an official Doritos Limón Flaming Hot truck outside the front of the Teragram, complete with neon-green shirt wearing promoters offering free Limón Flaming Doritos Hot chips and Pepsi (owned by the same bloated companies most likely) to bypassers. The truck itself was lime green, with a Doritos chip crenellation along the top that looked ridiculous – like a cardboard Doritos crown, broad and fragile spikes meant to keep the pigeons off.
There was also a film crew in a van and SUV milling around the entrance. A member of the film crew sat in the passenger seat, door open, phone out, and a hand buried in a bag of Doritos. There were memos taped to the sign poles announcing our consent to appear in any videos being made by simply being present in the area. No signature needed, our existence in the space was enough. No big deal. The film crew was there to film the concert itself.
Inside the Teragram, it’s dark and cavernous as always. It’s really a perfect venue. In the dark of the main room, it feels like the sides walls melt away, the people who lean against them get sucked in, and the condensed middle of the room is splashed by sheets of neon lights. It’s really dark, and I love it. A person can disappear in the Teragram and really get lost in the collective experience of the music.
Beer is still too expensive there. I already spent $13 just to park, so there’s no way I was paying anything more than $5 to feel the slightest of buzzes. I should invest in a flask but that brings up the problem of concealment and transportation. The Teragram is incredible, but the cost isn’t.
No one else seems bothered by the cost of existence in LA, though. People are talkative and excited. There is a really comfortable vibe in the room. DJ Jahi Sundance comes onto the stage and plays an opening set. He plays hits. Tupac, Tribe Called Quest, Max Romeo and The Upsetters, Lauryn Hill, Nas, Pusha-T. The crowd starts moving. We are all here for that good music. That hit you in your gut, make you break out in convulsions, mow your hair kind of good–except one guy in front of me, who shows his date pictures of wine bottles on his phone (some of which he hasn’t even tried). That’s alright. Later the couple appears to be debating the presence of women in the workforce and the new power dynamics in a post #MeToo business environment. The DJ set did run a little long if I’m being honest.
The sound is killer, though. The snares have a delicious snap; the bass hits you in the chest but doesn’t overwhelm, like a buoy it lifts everything else up; the mids are full and satisfying.
After an hour of the DJ, Glasper comes out in a Fuck Yo Feelings shirt (the title of his most recent album) drink in hand, apologizing humorously for the late start. He tells the crowd that he is drunk, then sober, but will be drunk by the third song.
They open up with “Reasonable Man,” with the bass, played by Derek Hodges, laying a melodic fabric upon which Glasper makes squeaky chair noises. The drummer, Chris “Daddy” Dave AKA Chris “Data” Dave, takes off on a rapid-fire, infectious drumming pattern that swarms and falls underneath the bass. His drumming is unbelievable. Truly stole the first third of the show for me. DJ Jahi Sundance is also contributing with effects, samples and vocals. When Glasper lays down his keyboard it’s like diving beneath a wave, becoming enveloped in a comfortable, swirling world of audio. Plumes of smoke or vapor begin shooting off around the crowd, like an underworld steam vent releasing its pressure. The smoke glows then dissipates in the slow-moving neon lights.
To worry about setlists during a Glasper performance is to make a mistake. The songs go where they go. You follow along, jump on board, or fall off. It’s my first real jazz concert that I’ve been to (although to call Robert Glasper purely jazz would be a disservice) and it becomes an exercise in letting go.
This is my running theory for getting a full experience at the concert. You have to “dig.” That’s what they are doing on stage. They are all “digging” each other. Each musical phrase, coming from vocals, keyboard, bass or drums, is a wavelength sent out by an individual to be dug by everyone else. Ideally the others in the band “dig” what that person is doing. And they send their wavelengths back. “Dig this?” they ask. And when everyone gets on the same wavelength, that is, when they all “dig it” – they push. They push until they “dig it” no more, and start a new journey, a new thing to “dig.” Do you “dig?” And the audience let’s all those waves hit them, and ideally, they “dig” it too. And they ride those wavelengths. They “dig” until they “dig” no more. And in that “digging,” once you are able to “dig it,” the whole universe opens up and you get swallowed in that wave of sound and let it push and pull you like a strand of seaweed in the current. You might not mind drowning in it, and in fact, you desire it as the players push and push and push, people shout out “yeah!” because they “dig it” and we all go on “digging” until we “dig” no more. I close my eyes and get lost in the sonic atmosphere. It is utterly gripping.
Overall, the music is a fusion of hip-hop and jazz that is warm, challenging, soulful and utterly authentic. Glasper leads his band, riffing and pushing, drawing us in and out. Glasper is frequently sarcastic and constantly engaging, whether he is riffing on a joke or on a melody. He would make a great stand-up comedian if he wasn’t a fucking god as a bandleader. Glasper offers shots for the crowd at one point, but after some quick shot math on stage (one shot = $7, and there’s about 700 people present – so that’s a $7,000 tab) he rescinds the offer.
About halfway through the show, Glasper starts bringing out his all-star guest list:
Terrance Martin on keys, vocoder and saxophone, Keyon Martin on trumpet, Lupe Fiasco(!) on vocals, Christian Scott on trumpet, Aeffion Crockett on vocals with a few jokes thrown in. Last but not least, just a little guy by the name of HERBIE HANCOCK came out and played on keys for a few songs. That’s right, Glasper brought out Herbie mother-f’ing Hancock (his words, not mine) for a couple of songs and the crowd absolutely lit up. Respect for the legend. Glasper watched it all unfold with his drink in hand at the side of the stage, digging the whole thing, jumping in towards the end to play with Herbie. What a moment it was.
The show wraps up and Glasper is still talking to fans at the front of the stage as I am leaving. Outside the air is refreshingly cool, and the Hot Flaming Limón Doritos hype-people are now tossing bags at any-old passer-by, desperate to rid themselves of their product, having boxes upon boxes left over. A group of people congregate near a taco stand, and I make my way back to my car, two bags of Doritos in my arms, still trying my best to dig the world around.