By Linda Cain
Photos: Roman Sobus
Texas wonder woman Carolyn Wonderland is an extraordinary, exuberant guitarist and so much more. She also plays sax and keys and is a soulful, powerful singer and prolific songwriter. She can count among her admirers no less than Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson Buddy Guy, and the late Johnny Winter and Levon Helm. The recently retired British blues icon John Mayall hired Wonderland to act as his Bluesbreakers Band’s lead guitarist for the last three years of his road life. As the first female Bluesbreaker, Wonderland follows in the footsteps of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Walter Trout, Coco Montoya and more.
Despite her youthful vigor, Carolyn is no novice; she’s been playing professionally since age 15 in her hometown of Houston. By age 20, she was the bandleader of a locally popular band, The Imperial Monkeys, and they cut five albums between 1993 and 1997. Texas legend Doug Sahm – who led the Sir Douglas Quintet that had a hit with “She’s About A Mover” -- convinced her to move to Austin in 1999. She soon garnered a local following and was discovered by tall Texan Ray Benson, leader of Asleep At The Wheel, who produced four of her ten solo albums. Carolyn has toured the world incessantly as a solo artist since her career first began.
After her three year stint with Mayall, during which she toured 16 countries, Wonderland signed with Alligator Records; her new release, titled Tempting Fate, just dropped on October 8. Produced by Dave Alvin, former guitarist and songwriter for The Blasters and a popular Americana artist, Tempting Fate is quickly rising up the charts and earning critical raves.
She is currently on tour to support the new disc and made a stop in Chicago to play City Winery on a Monday where she played to a small but enthusiastic audience that seemed to consist of both ardent fans and newcomers.
Jeff Massey is the talented singer/songwriter/guitarist who heads local blues rock favorite, the Steepwater Band. He opened the show with a 30-minute acoustic set that mixed heartfelt originals with his own exciting arrangements of blues standards. His nimble fingers delivered rapid-fire flat-pickin’ and his sinuous slide playing was impressive and sounded oh-so-fine.
Sitting on a stool, Massey brought an intimate feeling to the room as he opened and closed his warm and mellow set with blues favorites. He kicked off with a nice arrangement of “Key to the Highway” and closed with a rollicking medley of “Rollin’ and Tumblin’/Diving Duck Blues” that really got the crowd going. Massey’s finale, a re-styling of Taj Mahal’s “Statesboro Blues,” was the perfect ending to a short but sweet set.
Carolyn Wonderland and her band took the stage at 8:47. Accompanied by only a trio -- Shelley King on vocals and acoustic guitar backed by the versatile in-the-pocket rhythm section of bassist Bobby Perkins and drummer Kevin Lance -- Wonderland and crew made great big music, just like her great big home state of Texas, that grabbed everyone in the room. She played with power and excitement on all of her songs; the guitarists’ mighty solos were nothing less than exhilarating and mesmerizing. Her twangy, bluesy, passionate vocals simply rattled the rafters. Like a racehorse charging out of the gate, Wonderland kept up the musical pace, never letting up until she reached the finish line, until well after 10 pm. And then she played an encore.
A small, but avid, audience cheered, hooted and clapped after each song. And in some cases, they got up to dance too.
The engaging front woman opened with an original tune, a frisky, twangy shuffle “Texas Girl and Her Boots,” while wearing a funky pair of them on stage. Wonderland wasted no time to put her long, sturdy fingers to work as she manically and melodically plucked her vintage Gibson guitar, to cheers and shouts.
The second song was a tribute to her former employer, the recently retired John Mayall. She pointed out that Mayall’s song, “The Laws Must Change,” remains as relevant today as when it was written decades ago. Wonderland’s over-the-top vocals were matched by her intense guitar string bending; her fingers danced across those six strings like a spider on a hot stove. She meant every word she sang and each note she played as she mesmerized the audience with her brilliance and passion.
She also paid homage to fellow Texas artists with inspired versions of their songs: Janis Joplin (“Drinkin’ Whiskey, Drinkin’ Gin”), Little Screaming Kenny (“She Wants To Know”) and Billy Joe “Where do you want it?” Shaver (“Honey Bee”).
Carolyn performed a swingy song she wrote for her friend Russ, “On My Feet Again,” on which she demonstrated her whistling skills. It was a breezy, old timey shuffle that reminded us of Maria Muldaur.
Not one to shy away from addressing society’s ills and trouble in the world, Wonderland sat down to play her lap steel for her well-crafted original protest song “Fragile Peace And Certain War,” which can best be described as Bob Dylan meets Austin, Texas. She forcefully belted out the intense lyrics, which she matched with equally ferocious licks while sliding on her lap guitar.
Wonderland covered Dylan’s “It Takes A lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” imbuing the laid-back bluesy epic with a Lone Star flair and her sensuous singing; for the track on the new album she is joined by nasally twang of Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Although she didn’t mention it during the show, Bob Dylan is a big fan of hers and they have maintained a musical friendship over the years.
“A Crack in the Wall,” is a sad country waltz about the inhumane conditions that illegal immigrants suffer through. Although the song sounds like it was written by John Prine, Carolyn penned it. Her sad, weepy guitar notes added atmosphere to the sorrowful lyrics.
She and the band cut loose on Freddie King’s classic “Palace of the King,” a rip-roaring blues rocker that had some of us dancing.
She covered the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter folksy ballad “Loser” about a gambler’s woes. The song started slowly, with a cosmic Grateful Dead ambience; the band built the drama while her powerful harmonies with Shelley King soared. Wonderland then broke out her frenzied guitar solo and wailing vocals to bring the song to its climactic ending, one that surely did Garcia proud.
The crowd went wild, and rose for a standing ovation.
Wonderland turned the encore over to Shelley who sang lead and played acoustic guitar for a gospel blues song by Blind Willie Johnson, the oft-covered “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” King and Wonderland joined together for heavenly harmonies that lifted our spirits and sent us into the night.
There simply aren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe Carolyn Wonderland. But her producer Dave Alvin hit the nail on the head:
“I wanted to work with Carolyn because her guitar playing isn’t imitating anyone. She is especially not imitating the imitators, like so many modern blues or blues/rock guitarists do. She developed her own effective way of playing the blues that incorporate bits of folk, country and even psychedelic riffs, plus she always surprises me with her guitar lines and melodic twists and turns. As for Carolyn’s vocals, they are soulful and powerful to the point of being often spine-tingling. Her ability to move from intimate, whispery gentleness to earth shaking, Saturday night bar room loudness, always impresses me, both for the obvious gifts of her vocal range but also how well she uses it to advance the drama or the story of the song. I also love that Carolyn has a wonderful, mischievous sense of humor that makes her performances honest and charming and keep them far away from getting too bogged down in too much serious ‘artiste’ posturing.”
Wonderland’s stellar performance at City Winery on a Monday night in October proved every word from Dave Alvin to be true!
About the Author: Linda Cain is the Editor/Founder of Chicago Blues Guide