The Triad Music Scene

by Ryan Snyder

The Will Dawson travelogue alights in Chapel Hill with Alcazar Hotel

If it’s true that behind every great musician is an even greater story, Will Dawson has enough material to resuscitate the “Behind The Music” franchise by himself. The well-traveled bassist, vocalist, songwriter and former Squirrel Nut Zipper has lived more places than Johnny Cash thought to sing about, though he may have finally found a place to call home in Chapel Hill, at least for the time being. Just nine months into his current band, the Alcazar Hotel, Dawson has maintained residence in North Carolina longer than any other locale in the last nine years. Originally born in England, he went to high school in Holland for a time before eventually moving stateside. By the age of 17, Dawson was living out of his car while traveling around Mississippi and Tennessee, but it was at this time that his captivating musical edification took flight. It began with an intermittent tenure playing the Mississippi juke joints as a drummer for the likes of Robert Belfour and T-Model Ford, before following a woman back to Amsterdam. The relationship hit the bricks and Dawson found himself living in a squat with several others, his only source of income being a part-time job at a book store and late nights in the streets spent busking Muddy Waters and Andrew Bird tunes on acoustic guitar and banjo. “If I could make like 80 euro cents, I could buy a little thing of mayonnaise and Melba toast and eat,” Dawson said. “I lost about 50 pounds, but it was a cool thing to learn about the busking tradition and compete for spots with others.” It was there that Dawson learned to sing with the booming growl found on the Alcazar Hotel’s second album Come ON! DIG the Unified Theory! With dozens of other musicians to compete with, Darwinist forces dictated which musicians took home the spare change from the inebriates leaving the bars, usually those with the best spots and the loudest voices.

“The police would just move you along if you weren’t in the right spot, so you had to be really territorial,” he added. “You also find that certain corners will project really loud and you’ll be echoing through all of the Dutch streets when everyone is leaving the bars late at night.” Although the album owes much of its vitality to his European accommodations, his immersion in Delta blues was just as essential. Dawson admits that he didn’t make any conscious effort to pick up that sound, but it was more a product of his environment. “I’m just trying to do rock ‘n roll; not any kind of specially qualified emo, punk or anything like that,” Dawson said. “But of all the places I’ve lived, Mississippi has had the most impact. I guess that’s why it’s creeping into my music.” It was when he began playing all the time, Dawson stated, in addition to when he was cast into a studio role as an engineer on several highprofile albums, including Elvis Costello’s Grammy-nominated The Delivery Man and the Hives’ The Black & White Album. Although he insists that he’s only fluent in bass guitar, Dawson would end up playing everything from piano to mandolin to saxophone during recordings and his first Alcazar Hotel album found him performing all of the instrumental parts himself. That versatility would become crucial when he was recruited by Jimbo Mathus to play a multi-instrumental role in the influential Chapel Hill band the Squirrel Nut Zippers. “They weren’t going to have a sax player, so I bought a sax and played alto for eight hours a day for six weeks,” Dawson said. Dawson worked at Mathus’ studio while simultaneously recording his second album, which also features Mathus’ vocals on “3 Legged Dog” and the church spiritual “Sinner Man.” Dawson was also recording demos for the North Mississippi All Stars, whose front man Luther Dickinson, also guitarist for the Black Crowes, lived just up the road. Dickinson found his way onto the album as well, contributing guitar work to “Sinner Man” as well.

“They were in the back hanging out and I said, ‘Luther, if you’ve got five seconds, you want to lay down some really sick slide guitar on this song?,’” Dawson grinned. “He’s like, ‘Sure dude’ and he just wailed.” Dawson left the Zippers after two years in order concentrate on his own music and to pursue a degree in education, but not after what he calls some of his greatest on-stage experiences. One in particular came during a 2008 show in Boston, the hometown of his favorite act, the now-defunct band Morphine. Dawson taught the Zippers the Morphine tune “Top Floor, Bottom Buzzer” just before the show at the sold-out Paradise and with the saxophonist Dana Colley and drummer Jerome Dupree in the building, brought both on stage to perform it. “Somehow, I managed to scam my way into my two favorite bands of all time at the exact same time,” Dawson said. Morphine’s influence on Dawson is undeniable, as he’s taken a cue from deceased founder Mark Sandman and built the Alcazar Hotel around the gruff tone of his two-string bass. With guitarist Owen Fitzgerald and drummer Dustin Talley rounding out the trio, Dawson expects guitarist Edward Stanley to join the band later in the summer. “Our hot-shit second guitar player is in Memphis right now,” Dawson said. “Once he gets here, we’re going to work on this huge backlog of material that I have and just tour as much as we can.”