Recalling Laurier’s musical past

At a time when bands like the Tragically Hip, Great Big Sea and Jeff Healy played at the Laurier campus, Dan Dawson, current director of student services, was a driving force behind the school’s musical climate.

Dawson has been working full-time at Laurier since he graduated in 1989. Coming to campus in 1985, Dawson was involved on campus throughout his degree.

His involvement in the Laurier entertainment scene continued after he graduated; he began working full-time as the bar manager at Wilf’s and became Laurier’s programming and services manager soon after, making him responsible for booking live entertainment for the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union throughout the 1990s.

In this position, Dawson helped bring some of the most popular musical acts of the decade to the university, including three nights of shows by Great Big Sea at Wilf’s, the first school in Ontario to host the band.

As with today’s students, in his undergraduate years, Dawson says being in social circles meant going out at night; however, during that time it “revolved around the on-campus bars. The Turret was open five nights a week.”

With few bars off campus and a tiny student population, Laurier hosted major and soon-to-be-major bands.

“When I was in third year, the Tragically Hip played at the Turret on a Wednesday night,” he recalls.

As well, Dawson helped create an incarnation of Radio Laurier, in which the Turret’s music inventory of the time was simply wired from the DJ booth to speakers in the halls and concourse of the FNCC below and staffed by Turret DJs.

In 1990, Dawson managed to book David Wilcox, a major name at the time, to play at the Turret one Saturday night.

The night before the show, Dawson received a phone call that Wilcox, who according to Dawson had a reputation as an “excessive drinker,” had fallen off the stage at the University of Toronto and broken his arm.

“Here it is Friday at 10 o’clock, we’ve got a sold-out show Saturday night and now the artist isn’t able to come,” recalls Dawson.

Luckily, Dawson’s roommate and fellow Laurier alumni Fred Hale was the lead singer of a well-known local band at the time, Sour Mash.

Though there was disappointment at Wilcox’s cancellation by the crowd the next night who were handed refunds at the door, with the show put on last minute by his friend’s band, Dawson managed to turn near catastrophe into what he called “a pretty great night” at the Turret.

In 1992, Dawson was responsible for booking renowned guitarist Jeff Healy to play the Athletic Complex during O-Week ceremonies.

Through a mishap at the booking agency, no request was sent for Dawson to rent a massive power generator to power Healy’s laser light show, a show necessitated for because Healy was blind and simply sat on a chair playing a guitar on his lap for the entire performance with little crowd interaction.

The band refused to go onstage without the light show and Dawson was forced to locate a generator only hours before the show and pay over $1,500 to rent it, on top of the $15,000 Healy and his band were paid for the performance.

Dawson’s best memories of shows at Laurier were Canadian rockers the Tea Party and Big Sugar who played the Turret in the mid-’90s.

Sitting back to enjoy Big Sugar among the wild crowd in the Turret, “You could feel your chest moving with that music going right through you.”

He recounts celebrating the last show of a long tour by Big Sugar with the band’s manager who, after shoving the band’s fee into his cowboy boot, shared sambuca shots with Dawson.

Looking at students today, Dawson laments the days when on-campus bars and events were much more prominent and attracted bigger crowds. “Now the Turret is really only active on Saturday nights on a regular basis.”

Dawson attributes this to the increase of bar choices off-campus.

Will tomorrow’s students witness further decline and the end of a campus environment that hosted such great acts in the past?

Dawson maintains that the campus scene is “still the breaking ground for new acts,” but acknowledges a change in the industry, and through his recollection of his time as a student and working for subsequent generations of students, a change in the Laurier’s student experience.

The series “Recalling Laurier’s Musical Past” will recur throughout the year, delving into the university’s history of the arts.