In their earliest incarnation, Damn Tall Buildings didn’t rehearse. They busked.
It was Boston, circa 2013. And when the mood struck, the four musicians would convene with instruments in hand — Jordan Alleman on banjo, Sasha Dubyk on upright bass, Max Capistran on guitar and Avery Ballotta on fiddle — at their favorite street corner, place an open case at their feet and jam for hours on old bluegrass and blues songs, traditional fiddle tunes and, eventually, their own original music.
There, at the intersection of Newbury and Clarendon streets — just six blocks from where they met at Berklee College of Music — the ragtag quartet found their sound and fine-tuned their frenetic energy.
There, they became friends, forming a bond that would take them to stages and festivals across the country, including kicking off Sylvester Manor’s 2020 concert series on Saturday night.
“Busking taught us a lot about playing together. It definitely built a large foundation for our relationship now. We’re definitely a four-way best friendship,” Ballotta said during a telephone interview last week from his home in Brooklyn. “Playing on the street, working things out and finding ways to not only entertain yourself and each other, while actually have a good time and learning something, that practice is largely what we keep in our music now.
“A lot of it is a refined, recordable version of that energy.”
Through their music, the musicians explore the beauty and glory in the mundane, the mustachioed fiddler explains. Much like the John Hartford song, “In Tall Buildings” — from which the band tapped its name — it’s about the daily grind, the passage of time, searching for a home and dreaming what else might be out there, all the while carrying on.
“There’s so much shit in the world, especially now, and at the end of the day, we’re pretty focused on love and making that felt,” he said. “The time to hold your cards to the chest is over. We’ve got to be honest with each other. We’re all humans. We’re all just trying to figure it out, and we can do it together. And it’s always better together.”
That rings true for Ballotta’s own journey through the music world, which was not always smooth for the classically trained fiddler. Within a week after he snagged his first half-sized fiddle at an instrument swap, the naturally gifted 9-year-old had started lessons at home in Montana, well on his way to the competition circuit that would define his young adult years.
By the time he reached Montana State University as a college student — and taking lessons with Juilliard-trained violinist Angella Ahn — he’d had enough.
“You might be able to tell now, but sometimes my brain is all over the place, so I don’t practice quite like a regimented thing all the time. That got to be a problem,” he said. “I stopped playing the fiddle for a year and just composed.”
But before he was accepted to Berklee College of Music for film scoring, he had to audition, forcing him to pick his fiddle back up and face his demons. It would prove to be a performance that would land him under the tutelage of visiting scholar Bruce Molsky, who was “a vault of tunes and a groovy dude.”
“I started sinking into the fiddle becoming an extension of me, and then Bruce got me into singing and playing, and that really helped,” Ballotta said. “Once I got back into it, I started unlocking things. I think that was my biggest frustration leading up to putting it down.
“A lot of the things I wanted to play, or express — because every instrument is speaking, you’re just amplifying what you’re trying to say — I felt like I was falling so short all the time, by the end of that stint,” he continued. “But it’s one of my other limbs now, especially after picking it back up. We joined.”
It wasn’t long before Ballotta joined up with Capistran and Dubyk, too — who met in class when they were wrongfully accused of cheating off each other on a test because they had the same incorrect answer — and Alleman, the first banjo player he’d ever called a friend.
Not only did they all hit it off, but they also wanted to busk. And even more surprisingly to Ballotta, they wanted to play traditional bluegrass and fiddle tunes.
“We have a very low threshold for bullshit, across the board. All four of us have pretty much the equitable threshold for that — and that’s one thing that’s really nice!” he said with a laugh. “Because it’s the four of us and we’re all so tight, it’s a good confidence in the fact that we’re not ever lying to each other, or don’t have to act a certain way in any setting because we’re trying to save face.
“It has engendered a peace around us, which is partly why we can come at shows with such energy,” he continued. “It’s similar to the busking thing. For lack of a better term, we’re just there, we’re playing, there’s no f—s given. We’re there to play music.”
The Sylvester Manor 2020 concert series kicks off with its annual bluegrass show, featuring Damn Tall Buildings, on Saturday, January 18, at 7:30 p.m. at the Shelter Island School auditorium. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets range from $30 to $45. For more information, call 631-749-0626 or visit sylvestermanor.org.