Photos by Paul Panzarella

Doug Yeomans has been playing the music of The Band for almost 50 years, so we decided to ask the music director of Buffalo’s “Last Waltz” about his relationship with the music of The Band.
The interview, by Elmer Ploetz, has been edited for length and clarity. A shorter version was published in the program for the 2019 SAM Foundation “Last Waltz.”
EP: When did you first become aware of the band?
DY: I guess I must have been about a junior in high school. Probably 16 (years old), and I was playing with these older guys once a week and just working out songs. It was a really good workshop situation.
And they played The Band for me. And, boy, it just kind of bowled me over when I heard how cool the music that they were doing was, you know, and I don’t even know that I got it as in “got it,” got it. But it was powerful and it was different.
It was different from the psychedelic thing that was kind of going on. It was different from the folk rock thing, you know Crosby, Stills & Nash. It had elements of the blues, it hit on the country music which I loved at the time, and, it was what has become known as Americana.
It’s had all those different elements of all I was listening to, you know, the very, very cool time of life, because I was really diving into so many musical influences for the first time.
EP: What year?
DY: Let’s see. I would say that was 1970, maybe ’69-‘70. … I remember specifically the brown album (simply titled “The Band), which was their second album was the first one that I heard.
EP: As a guitarist, what did they mean to you, what was it telling you?
DY: As a guitarist, it, it showed me how the guitar fit into a musical palette. You know there was Hendrix and there was Cream, and there were those things where the guitar – and I love those things – but the guitar really … was the main focus. I think The Band was when I started to mature as a player and realize that the guitar was just part of an ensemble.
And Robbie Robertson played for the songs. He used cool sounds on the guitar, you know, stuff that I never heard before. I guess that’s how the guitar thing kind of got in my head.
I guess I could say that I began to listen to the whole. You know, when you’re a young musician, you tend to listen to the instruments you’re playing, because you’re soaking up with what that instrument’s you tend to listen to the instruments you’re playing, because you’re soaking up with what that instrument’s doing.
And there was a maturity to how (Robertson) put the guitar in the music. And I guess the writing really blew me away. The songs, they were like Dylan, only with really cool ensemble play. And you could tell it was a band. From that moment, I always wanted to have a band, a creative entity.
EP: Did you get a chance to see them live?
DY: Yes, I did. The first time I saw them live, it was not at Woodstock but at Watkins Glen. I think was at a race track. More people went to that than went to Woodstock. (The Watkins Glen Summer Jam on July 28, 1974, drew 600,000 fans). It was the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, just a one-day concert. And my three favorite bands were playing. So it was, it was a no brainer thing for me.
EP: What’s the hardest thing about putting together a show like trying to recreate the Last Waltz? The other question is what’s the best thing about it?
DY: I don’t know that I can tell you the hardest thing, because it was such a pleasure to do it. And I felt so driven to do it. I was thinking about this idea for so many years actually.
And then it came to fruition. The right things came together to really make it happen.
I was excited, nervous, but dove right in and just started to look at the show and see what was needed and then seek out the people that would do it.
EP: Not every city has the musicians that are able to do that.
DY: Right. And I was blown away by some of the people who came in to audition. There were several people that auditioned for the show that I didn’t know of that came in and really impressed me right from the get go.
You know what, I’ll tell you one of the hardest things for me … It was having to say no to some of the people that auditioned. Just because there were so many good people that came out and auditioned. We’re certainly blessed with a bumper crop of great talent in this town.
One of the easiest things was picking the five-piece band. I knew who was going to be in the band from the get go.
And I didn’t audition them. All I did was call them because they’re friends of mine I’ve known for years. I knew that they were the people that would play the music as good as anybody ever could play it.
EP: You’d played with them all for years and years.
DY: Pete Holguin on drums. We’d played together countless times, going back to the 1970s.
Jim Whitford was the one and only choice to be Rick Danko. Jimmy Ehinger, just a phenomenal piano player who played that music from the time it came out, and Ron Davis. And both of those guys
(Ehinger and Davis) really had the essence of what Richard Manual and Garth Hudson had. Putting the band together was a no-brainer.
And myself. I was a huge fan of Robbie Robertson, his guitar playing. So, you know, casting myself was easy.
And one weird thing is that I sing all the time now, but Robbie wasn’t a singer
So I’ve sang a lot of those songs over the years, but now I get to hear other people’s interpretations and it’s real cool to hear that.
EP: I had never really thought about Peter Holguin as a singer, but he does and he’s good.
DY: I always knew Pete had an incredibly good voice that would do the Levon part justice.
Pete always worked with great singers like Billy McEwen. So he never pushed himself out there as a lead singer. But with the Billy Brite Band back in the late 1970s, Pete and I would sing harmony vocals together, and every now and then both of us would sing a lead vocal. But when Pete sang, I was always blown away by how good of a voice he had.
EP: One of the things that’s amazing is there’s been very little change in the cast.
DY: This was a little family here. We created this little family and it’s really heartwarming to know that almost everybody wanted to come back to do this. It’s pretty cool.
EP: Now you’re able to expand it this year, you have a few more songs.
DY: We decided it was time to look at the expanse of the whole stuff that’s out there recorded from that evening and add a few that didn’t make the movie, because they’re certainly worthy of being on the show.
EP: Any more thoughts about the show?
DY: Well, you know, it’s our junior year here. Third year. And I think, I think everybody knows what they’re going to go do. And I think the show is going to be the best one that we’ve had.
There was something special about that first show.
And then our sophomore effort last year just had the same camaraderie, and I was so blown away to see how anxious everyone was to get back to do the show again.
And I think we’re going to duplicate that again on our third year.
I’m thrilled that the audience has come through again, selling the show out months in advance.
Meanwhile, last spring I did a show at the Sportsman’s with just the five-piece band. I can’t remember if it sold out, but if it wasn’t sold out it was pretty damn close. There are people who want to hear this music.
We kind of live in a tribute world, but I didn’t look at this as a tribute band. I guess you can call us that. It’s a band that plays the music of these people, and I guess we are paying tribute to them. They were big influences on all of us.
EP: How much do you try to exactly replicate as opposed to interpreting it through your own style?
DY: I interpret. I’m not trying to replicate. I mean, the song is the song and has its certain chord changes and melodies. And that’s what we do. We play the songs like we play.
We all soaked up that music, year after year, growing up. It comes out sounding pretty authentic.
There are certain musical melodic figures in each song that are part of the song. But when it comes time to solo, or when there’s improvisation going on, we’re not trying to copy what those guys did. Those guys don’t try to copy what they did. It’s not how you do it.
If you listen to the evolution of the songs, they evolve. Players evolve. And that’s what we do.
Another thing that really makes my day about doing this, this whole production, is having a horn section. Playing this music with a horn section lifts my feet two feet off the ground. When the horns kick in on something like “Ophelia” …
Your heart beats a little faster. It’s an amazing, amazing thing to have that, or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to have the horns do that beautiful intro. And then the exit in the song.
And that goes that goes back to a long time ago, their double live album called “Rock of Ages,” which was a New Year’s Eve show that they did in New York City with a horn section. That’s the first time I heard that music with horns. Levon Helm loved the horns.
And if you know what he’s done, you know in the last part of his life, he had a horn section. It was like an 11-piece band when I went to see him at the at The Barn.
And I got to play with that band. Wow, it was a powerful moment.
EP: So you got to sit down with him at The Barn.
DY: In the 1980s, I was playing with Stan Szelest. Stan started going to Woodstock, and he would leave me here with the band. And we’d hire a piano player because we still had three steady gigs a week here. We would just do the gigs without Stan, and I would sing all the songs.
And then Stan came back one time and he said, ‘OK, so here’s what we’re going to do.
We’re going to go, we’re going to take the whole band and we’re going to go play with Levon in Woodstock.
And so, we both so we pulled up to the ranch house at about midnight, and the door opens and this small silhouette comes walking toward me. And he gets to me, he grabs my bag and he was, “I’m Levon. How you doing? Good, man? Come on in.”
And we sat up till 5 in the morning talking, telling stories and … And from that moment on, I was his brother. We all were, because he and Stan were tight. They were brothers.
I was out on a Broadway show tour in 2008, and I had a week off and came home. I was standing there washing some dishes and the phone rang. I was like, ‘Do I answer that, with an unnamed number?
And I did. And it was, “Doug, it’s Levon! How you doing?
We hadn’t talked in several years. And he proceeded to say, “Man, Stan’s daughter was here with her husband and they brought a tape of you guys. You guys were the best band in the world.”
EP: Levon’s telling you that?
DY: I said, “I think I remember you were in a couple good ones.” And he laughed. We chatted, and it was like I’d seen him the day before. He was just that kind of guy. He was very much about community.
So he said, “Look, let’s find some stuff you guys got, you must have some stuff recorded.”
I said, “Yeah, I’ve got a lot of tapes to the band.” He said, “We need to put that stuff out. People should hear what you did.”
I said, “Well, I’ll start collecting stuff. Let’s see what we can work out.”
He said, “You know, we’re playing Saturday night at The Barn. Are you around?”
I said, “You know that I am.” So we went.
My wife and I drove up and hung out. His manager, Barbara at the time, said here’s some seats for you. We had played so many gigs together back in the ‘80s and he came out sat down at the drums, he’s probably only about 10 feet away from me. And started … and I just went, “Oh my God, there it is … the best drummer in the world just started playing again.” It’s so great to be in the room with him playing.
So they played a few songs and all of a sudden, the manager taps me and says, “You got your guitar with you?” It’s in the car and I’ll go get it. So I ended up playing a few songs with the band. It was quite a lovely thing to get on stage with him again.
But anyway, we kept in touch.
This was during the period where he was doing “Dirt Farmer” and “Electric Dirt. They were touring quite a bit; they did Nashville, the Ryman, winning Grammys. And the cancer was sort of taking over.
I hung out with him backstage at the Tralf when he was here with the Barn Burners. It wasn’t that big of a house, but I was there. He couldn’t sing. When I went backstage to see him, he just looked at me, hugs me and he was kind of crying and pointed his throat and said, “Can’t talk.”
But it was a good thing to see him. But then, he got an encore … all those years he got to do the Ramble. The Ramble was really just a rent party, but it turned into something pretty special.
So I went back to the Ramble a few more times and we hung out and we tried to put this thing together, to do this Stan Szelest album, but it never came to fruition. He was busy and not as healthy as he could have been. His manager sort of nixed this project, to keep him on task.
His manager, her responsibility to was to make sure that he was doing what he needed to do, and I totally understood that. But unfortunately, this project that he and I both wanted to do really never got done.
So someday I’m going to see if I can make that project happen, in his honor and in Stan’s honor, to put out some music before this generation is gone. Right. And of course every year that we do this Stan Szelest Fest, that’s part of that too. Honoring Stan is another way of honoring Levon, too.

Elmer Ploetz

Author Elmer Ploetz

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