Bluegrass isn’t exactly synonymous with Boston, nor does the genre immediately come to mind when the city’s Berklee College of Music is mentioned. But thanks in part to Damn Tall Buildings, bluegrass has a presence in Boston today, and it also has a connection with the school’s recent alumni.
“Music is reactionary,” says DTB singer and fiddler Avery Ballotta, who transferred to Berklee in 2012 to study film scoring. “So with the environment as particular as Boston is, it’s been a lot of fun to see how our music responds to that because each show we play informs how we approach the music.
“I think one of the reasons it works,” he adds, “is because we’re very honest with where we are and who we are and where we come from, and it makes it easier to play the music rather than try and be something we’re not.”
Damn Tall Buildings literally emerged from Boston’s streets, with Ballotta and singer-guitarist Max Capistran (who also started at Berklee in 2012) busking blues and country material not too far from the campus. Singer, banjo player and eventual Berklee graduate Jordan Alleman, whom Ballotta first crossed paths with on a beach, was next to join.
“He was a friend of a friend,” recalls Ballotta, “and I honestly had no idea he played banjo until later that same week. Of all the people in DTB, he’s the only one who had that strong bluegrass tradition.”
The lineup was complete when Sasha Dubyk took up the bass.
“She was a vocalist at Berklee and one of Max’s best friends,” Ballotta says. “She wanted to busk with us, and she rented a bass — and then the band was born. And now we play bluegrass music.”
Ballotta, Capistran, Alleman and Dubyk were busking one day when they were approached by a videographer who wanted to film them. About a week later, while rehearsing for the impending video shoot, the quartet realized a band name was in order.
“We’d been performing on the street for about four or five months but didn’t need a name until then,” says Ballotta. “Max and I shared a love for [country-bluegrass great] John Hartford [whose catalog includes the song ‘In Tall Buildings’], so we were like, ‘How about Tall Buildings? That might be cool.’ And then Jordan came in hot with the Damn, and we all thought that was awesome.”
They weren’t the only ones who liked the moniker.
“We ended up doing the video on Newbury Street,” Ballotta says, “so when people were walking by, we asked them what they thought [of our name] — and everyone was into it, so we stuck with it.”
The first nonbusking performance for Damn Tall Buildings was in early 2013, as part of a bill featuring the folk-rock band Grey Season at the Midway Café in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood.
“There were probably six people in the audience,” Ballotta says with a laugh. “[After that] it was a lot of bar gigs: ‘Let’s see if we can put ourselves out there.’ Busking is such an incredible performance practice that we could take anywhere and still have a good time.”
DTB dropped its debut album, Cure-All, in 2014, followed by a self-titled EP in 2015. The band’s latest release stemmed from a gig on April 22, 2016, opening for Sierra Hull at Berklee’s Red Room at Café 939.
“We had up to that point played a ton of rock shows,” Ballotta remembers, “and we were happy to get back to a bluegrass show and excited to show the Berklee world what we had been working on.”
According to Ballotta, either one day before the gig or on the day of the show, Tony Brown, who runs Berklee’s BIRN Cooperative Recordings (aka birnCORE Records), approached DTB about recording and releasing a portion of the band’s Café 939 performance. The end result was Good Enough!, which arrived last month.
“Playing a show and then seeing it turn into a record a year later is great, but it’s also funny in a way,” admits Ballotta. “It’s almost like I have to remind myself that we have another record.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Damn Tall Buildings on tour (schedule subject to change):
• June 2: Riverwalk Café — Nashua, New Hampshire
• June 3: BHS Bulldog Fest — Bedford, New Hampshire
• June 6: The Cantab Lounge — Cambridge, Massachusetts
• June 7: Knitting Factory — Brooklyn, New York
• June 9: The Root Cellar — Greenfield, Massachusetts
• June 10: Brookline Porchfest — Brookline, Massachusetts
• June 11: The Cove — Southwick, Massachusetts
• June 18: Stevens-Coolidge Place — North Andover, Massachusetts
• June 21: The Golden Pony — Harrisonburg, Virginia
• June 22: Fork in the Alley — Roanoke, Virginia
• June 25: The Purple Fiddle — Thomas, West Virginia
• June 27: Isis Music Hall — Asheville, North Carolina
• June 28: The Garage — Charlottesville, Virginia
• June 29: Germano’s — Baltimore
• June 30: The Barbary — Philadelphia
• July 2: Togetherness Fest — Spencer, New York
• July 19: Gore Place — Waltham, Massachusetts