Back in the early 1980s, Buffalo Music Hall of Fame guitarist Doug Yeomans piled into one of two musician-packed cars headed to Woodstock, N.Y. Around midnight, his car pulled into the driveway of a rustic spread tucked within the forest, and was soon met by a diminutive silhouette, illuminated by porch light.
“How you doing?” said the man with an Arkansas-bred twang. “I’m Levon.”
It was the first of many meetings between Yeomans and Levon Helm, incendiary drummer and vocalist of The Band, a quintet that backed Bob Dylan and became the foundation for modern Americana. These encounters spawned a friendship that lasted until Helm’s death in 2012, and enhanced an artistic veneration first solidified decades before Yeomans embarked on his latest journey as frontman and music director of the live re-creation of The Band’s seminal concert film, “The Last Waltz” inside Babeville’s Asbury Hall on Nov. 17.
“One thing about Levon was that when you’re family, you’re family forever,” said Yeomans, reached last week inside the Sportsmens Tavern. “It was a great relationship, and I got to work with one of my biggest heroes in the world.”
Without that work—engineered by Band pianist, Buffalo native and musician mentor Stan Szelest—Yeomans would still cherish Helm and his work with The Band. But that initial venture to Woodstock with Szelest’s Stan and the Ravens makes this new collaboration with Sportsmen’s Americana Music Foundation and more than 30 players scheduled for the sprawling tribute to the Martin Scorsese documentary personal.
Organized by Yeomans and Americana Music Foundation President Bob McLennan over the past year, the show will have the likes of Ron Davis, Jim Ehinger, Pete Holquin, Jim Whitford and Yeomans performing as members of The Band. It also will feature an encyclopedic list of singers, artists and pickers primed to replicate the walk-on performances of Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Girlpope’s Mark Norris will emerge as the sequin-clad, scene-stealing Van Morrison and vocalist Michael McGuire will stash his Zeppelin cover act Coda for the transition lenses of Neil Diamond.
It’s a spectacle that’s relegated no historical detail as trivial, both to honor the original and unite multiple generations that have grown to cherish the performance.
“For people that come to see this show, I hope, for the ones that are old enough, it brings them back to that time,” Yeomans said. “For the ones that aren’t old enough, I hope it’s a connection to that time, and they can feel what was going on back then in the world of music.”
Together, the event will unfold as the latest inventive venture by Sportsmen’s Americana Music Foundation to enhance Buffalo’s collective appreciation of the genre popularized by the members of The Band - Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Helm. But in a larger way, it’s a night to ignite an amplified embrace, one felt by Yeomans whenever he traveled to Woodstock.
Helm once invited Yeomans to join him on stage for his Midnight Ramble, a regular, late-night performance held for friends and visitors inside Helm’s upstate barn. The shows were part concert and part communion, digested by professionals and patrons who understood rhythm and reverberation as religion.
The experience for Yeomans—playing amid Helm’s handpicked performers as part of a mutual admiration society—was the essence of music as community. And if Helm was around today to see what his old friend was planning inside an old Buffalo church?
“He would say, go for it, brother,” Yeomans said. “I know that’s exactly what he’d say.”
The Last Waltz Live
8 p.m. Nov. 17 at Asbury Hall at Babeville (341 Delaware Ave.). Tickets are $35-$45, with proceeds benefiting Sportsmen's Americana Music Foundation. Visit sportsmensamf.org