Around the Island

Shelter Island’s winter bluegrass tradition is alive and well; meet the next band

Each January as winter strengthens its grip on the East End, Sylvester Manor helps lift spirits and warm hearts by bringing an up-and-coming traditional bluegrass band to Shelter Island School for a much needed and always well attended night of music.

This year is no exception. The Boston-based bluegrass band Damn Tall Buildings will perform in concert at the school on Saturday, Jan. 18, at 7:30 p.m.; doors open at 7, and get the year off on the right foot (stomp).

This post-holiday Shelter Island tradition began back in 1994, when Homespun, a group of Island musicians, started producing bluegrass shows at the Shelter Island School, said Tom Hashagen, Homespun member and the Manor’s musical events coordinator. “We, as Homespun, just looked at this new space the school had built, and being regular attenders of bluegrass festivals, notably Winterhawk (now Greyfox) we thought we might try a show of our own and see if anyone showed up. More than 200 did,” said Mr. Hashagen. “Bluegrass just seemed to fit and it has become a tradition.

According to Mr. Hashagen, he and his wife, Lisa Shaw, Penny and John Kerr, Heather Reylek, Sherry Stelljes and Chip Luddecke spearheaded the birth of the concerts. 

“The Shelter Island Historical Society was the nonprofit that enabled us to produce the show. The town stepped in after awhile, and now, the Manor, which became involved as a result of Hurricane Irene in 2011 when damage to the Manor grounds moved the show to January of 2012,” Mr. Hashagen said. “That concert was Blue Highway and it was a smash.”

Phil Rosenthal and the Stockwell Brothers performed in the inaugural concert followed by Northern Lights, the Dry Branch Fire Squad, Tim and Mollie O’Brien, the Seldom Scene, Nickle Creek, Bearfoot, the Steep Canyon Rangers, Della Mae, the Steeldrivers, Robin and Linda Williams, John Jorgensen, Blue Highway, Sierra Hull, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Mile Twelve and the Slocan Ramblers. 

“This list is by no means complete!” said Mr. Hashagen. 

The concerts have branched out and now include spring and summer shows as well.

Reserved seats for the Damn Tall Buildings are $30 to $45 and are available for purchase by visiting or by calling the Manor at 631-749-0626.

Sylvester Manor Educational Farm was once a Native American hunting and fishing ground and, since 1652, has been home to 11 generations of its original European settler family. Over time, the place has been transformed from a slaveholding provisioning plantation to an Enlightenment-era farm, then to a pioneering food industrialist’s estate and today to an organic educational farm responsive to, and supported by, our neighbors and friends worldwide.

Q&A with Damn Tall Buildings fiddle player Avery Ballotta

What’s the meaning behind the band’s name?

We’re named (mostly) after one of our favorite songs by our favorite riverboat captain – John Hartford. His song, In Tall Buildings, carries a tale of the life of a working man from start to finish of their career (very much worth a listen/revisit). Our name is the first clue to our collective relationship with normalcy and stifling societal assumptions. ‘Damn those tall buildings we got shows to play!’

Where/how did the band meet?

We met in Boston and as a band we really got to know each other playing on the streets in the Town.

Do you compose your own songs?

Most of them. We’ve been playing more and more traditional bluegrass/classic rock songs in our sets, but the majority of what you hear when we play are originals. Max is the main songwriter for the band, though we all write and have songs on the records, and all arrangements are the four of us creating the sound together. I don’t believe we’ve ever played a song the same way twice no matter the structure and, when the groove is on, we tend to sink hard into spontaneous composition.

How did the band members all get drawn into bluegrass music?

For three of us it was in college. Jordan has had the longest relationship with bluegrass growin’ up in Oregon learnin’ the banjo since he was a teen. He brought a lot of our now favorite songs/tunes to us early in our band-life and all of us have actually fallen in love with roots music on the whole, so far for the rest of our lives.

Who are some of your bluegrass inspirations?

The Stanley Brothers, The Carter Family, Tim O’Brien, Del + The McCourys and so many more, too many to list. And of course, John Hartford.

Who are some of your non-bluegrass inspirations?

Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, The Band, CCR, Mavis Staples, Fleetwood Mac, The Front Bottoms, Danny Barnes and all of our friends. This list could also go on and on.

What do you hope people take away from seeing you perform?

If nothing else, a lightened heart. We’re all in this tumultuous sea of life together and we know all about that writhing heavy darkness that can get caught in our bodies. The four of us are best friends and chosen family and using our support and harmony to dissolve that heaviness on stage, we aim to bring some power back to everyone who hears even one note.

How has time affected the way you write songs or the way that you shape your songwriting?

My mother once said, “if you’re not growin,’ you’re dyin’,” and we ain’t dead yet. We have learned and continue to learn so much from our time together and as long as we’re hungry to learn, the songs will just keep coming so we can say what we mean and expound accordingly.

Are you all full-time musicians?

The short answer is yes. The long one is that music is our lives so we’re always working hard. We do still have day jobs, livin’ in NYC is no joke, but presumably that’s temporary. Or is it? The main point we’re tryin’ to make is that we’ve all been called to make music and amplify what we hear. That never ends no matter what our “careers” look like and that’s what has gotten us this far. And we’re just getting started.

Have you ever been in a band playing a different type of music?

Heck yeah. Max grew up playing and still plays in a blues band. Sasha has been singing in a Klezmer band for crowds of thousands since she was a teen. I grew up playing in a semi-pro string quartet that would gig regionally since middle school. We’ve all got a touch of musical theatre under our belts. There’s a lot of new music on the docket for 2020 for DTB and soon to launch projects.

What is busking?

Music— on the street, in a mall, no shoes on your feet! Well, shoes are optional but no matter what, busking is synonymous with street performance. A classic trade of talent for love.

In your band bio on, you mention that the band would jam on street corners. What was that like? Most memorable experiences?

Incredible. We really cut our teeth busking together. There’s no barrier between us and the audience. If you wanna dance, we’re gonna dance with you! If you wanna watch from across the street, we’ll give you a wave when the song is through. We really learned a ton about our songs, ourselves as people and performers and our relationship with our audiences while playin’ barefoot on Newbury Street. We discovered our calling as a band from those first few months.

On your website, you mention that while you and Alleman met playing frisbee, 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.’ What was the class/test?

I think it was ear training. Which is hilarious because Sasha and Max both teach forms of ET to kiddos here in the city.

Mr. Ballotta is DTB’s fiddle player. He hails from Bozeman, Mont.