In their early days, Damn Tall Buildings didn’t rehearse – they busked. Now, whether live or on record, the band still radiates the energy of a ragtag crew of music students playing bluegrass on the street. But anchoring that energy is their instrumental chops, their strong songwriting, and their varied influences that stretch beyond bluegrass, even beyond American roots music altogether. Whether sharing lead vocals and instrumental solos or blending their voices into high-spirited harmony, Damn Tall Buildings are a tight unit that contains more than the sum of its parts.
Primary vocalist and lyricist Max Capistran’s singing recalls old blues and The Band-style roots-rock, whereas Sasha Dubyk’s time studying musical theater is evident in her rich vocal tone and soulful flair. The interplay between Avery Ballotta’s fiddle and Jordan Alleman’s banjo brings stratospheric dimension to the churning rhythm section of Capistran’s guitar and Dubyk’s bass. The band’s harmony singing is tight without being too slick – they sound like four individual voices joined together in celebration, not a perfectly polished machine. Their choruses are the kind you sing along to with a glass raised into the air. Their lyrics find beauty and glory in the mundane, workaday struggle of everyday life: time keeps passing, you don’t like your job, you drink too much, you laugh with your friends, you search for a home, and you dream about what else might be out there. You carry on. This is what Damn Tall Buildings sings about, what they seek to share with their audience.
This has long been the case, even when their audience was simply whoever happened to be passing by. In 2013, then students at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the band took their instruments to nearby street corners and jammed for hours on old bluegrass and blues songs, traditional fiddle tunes, and eventually their own original music. They had become fast friends: Ballotta and Alleman met playing frisbee on Boston’s Revere Beach, while Capistran and Dubyk met in class, when they were wrongfully accused of cheating off each other on a test because they had put down the exact same incorrect answer. Busking, a continuous test of one’s ability to command an audience’s attention, cemented their closeness and fostered their infectious, captivating performance style. It’s how they learned half of their repertoire, and it’s where Dubyk first picked up the bass. Since then, they’ve made three albums: 2014’s Cure-All, 2015’s self-titled, and their forthcoming third album, Don’t Look Down. The band has also relocated to Brooklyn, NY and toured widely, sharing stages with Sierra Hull and the California Honeydrops and appearing at festivals like Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, Philadelphia Folk Festival, and Freshgrass Festival, where they took second place in the 2016 band competition.
After several years of living in different places and trying to make things work, the band sees Don’t Look Down as a reconnection, a leap forward, a simultaneous arrival and takeoff. Having self-produced their first two albums, the band enlisted Dan Cardinal (Darlingside, Lula Wiles, Josh Ritter) to produce Don’t Look Down, which captures Damn Tall Buildings’ lightning-in-a-bottle live energy while also showcasing a broader sonic finesse. The atmospheric violin intro to album opener “Late July” evokes Ballotta’s time playing in an experimental string quartet with the Boston Ballet, but the song soon gives way to a hard-driving, lighthearted meditation on loss and tough times. Standout track “Evan” (as in Williams) brandishes Dubyk’s fiery vocal and Alleman’s ferocious, guttural low-tuned banjo over a bed of clattering percussion and rock-solid bass. “Words to the Song,” an ode to faking it until you make it, recalls John Hartford with a healthy dash of vintage soul.
The album cover for Don’t Look Down, by artist Scott McCormick, is a reference to the old Chinese story of Wan Hu, a man who strapped forty-seven rockets to a chair in order to launch himself into space. When the smoke cleared, he was gone, and never seen again. For Damn Tall Buildings, this story resonates. They are a band of unlikely astronauts, of rocket launchers, of dreamers. Who knows if they’ll reach outer space, but they’re certainly going to spark something.