Release date: Oct. 8, 2021
By Mark Thompson
If you ask blues fans who their favorite female guitarist is, chances are good that you would hear names like Samantha Fish, Ana Popovic, Joanna Connor, Susan Tedeschi, Laura Chavez, or Bonnie Raitt. Despite a career that started with her first professional gig at age fifteen, and now spans thirty-plus years, Carolyn Wonderland has seemingly never gotten her due as compelling singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Now, after years on the road and ten previous albums, Wonderland delivers a record brimming with a palpable sense of energy and hard-earned musical prowess that will undoubtedly make blues listeners sit up and take notice.
If you weren't paying attention, you might have missed the fact that Wonderland was playing lead guitar in John Mayall's touring band the last three years, the first woman to hold that position in a lineage that includes Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Coco Montoya, Walter Trout, Buddy Whittington, and Rocky Athas. She can also lay claim to being the first lead guitar playing woman to be featured on an Alligator Records release, as the label celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year.
Backed by her regular rhythm section, Bobby Perkins on bass and Kevin Lance on drums, Wonderland starts things off by unleashing a torrent of cutting licks from her lap steel guitar, lifting her voice in an intense plea for a better world on “Fragile Peace And Certain War.” The next track, another original entitled “Texas Girl And Her Boots,” finds her in better spirits, getting an assist on piano from fellow Texan, Marcia Ball, one of several notable guests. But it's Wonderland's smooth guitar work that leaves a lasting impression. She gives the following track, “Broken Hearted Blues,” a sassy vocal turn, matched by her fiery solo as Red Young fills out the arrangement with his expert work on the organ.
Of the remaining Wonderland originals, “Crack In The Wall” is a mournful ballad that delves into the immigration issue, the sadness further emphasized by the contributions of Cindy Cashdollar on the lap steel and Jan Fleming on accordion. “On My Feet Again” employs a light swinging pace with Young adding some spot-on piano fills. Wonderland once again nails the vocal, running the emotional gamut, even adding a spot-on burst of whistling. She takes listeners deep into the honky-tonk on “Fortunate Few,” belting out the lyrics over Young's rollicking piano lines.
The album's producer, Dave Alvin, certainly knows how to capture the best a guitar player has to offer, as witnessed by his efforts as a co-founder of the legendary roots rock band, the Blasters, and throughout his notable solo career. He joins in on rhythm guitar on several tracks before cutting loose on the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter tune, “Loser.” Wonderland sounds like a woman possessed before she joins Alvin in a heated exchange of six string magic. The cover of Mayall's “The Laws Must Change” re-frames the song with a darker, funkier groove and harder edge. Wonderland reminds us that even though her former boss wrote the song over 50 years ago, the lyrics continue to resonate today as a call to action.
Delving into her country music influences, she covers Billy Joe Shaver's ode to love, “Honey Bee,” complete with Fleming's accordion and Shelly King adding backing vocals. Wonderland's sweet vocalizing gives way to another rousing guitar foray that elevates the proceedings beyond the Texas two-step. As she has done on several previous recordings, the guitarist gives her interpretation of a Bob Dylan's classic, this time focusing on “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” sharing the lead vocal with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, then engaging Cashdollar in a notable exchange that keeps the heat on simmer to best appreciate their deft fretwork.
No matter what turns the music may take, Wonderland makes sure that the proceedings never stray too far from the blues. The breadth of her musical vision ensures that listeners will never suffer from boredom. All of those decades on the road have honed Wonderland's many talents to a fine edge, and she is not shy about sharing them on this outstanding album that should finally bring her the acclaim that she deserves. Most definitely recommended!
For info or to buy the music: www.alligator.com
About the Author: Mark Thompson lives in Bradenton, Florida and is the past president of the Suncoast Blues Society. A former Chicago area native, he also acted as the president of Rockford/Byron's Crossroads Blues Society. Thompson writes for many blues publications and served on the Board for the Blues Foundation in Memphis, which hosts the annual Blues Music Awards and International Blues Challenge events.