Carolyn Wonderland is a little hard to define. She plays a mean, nasty guitar. She rocks. She rolls. She sings blues. She sings country. Basically, she sings and plays any damn way she pleases.
And all of that is what makes her music so good. And so thoroughly enjoyable.
I saw her once, years ago, at the Thunderbird Cafe in Pittsburgh, and I can testify she was indeed all of the above.
“Tempting Fate,” her first album for the respected blues label Alligator Records, is full of all her best qualities — inspired songwriting, interpretive covers, and razor-sharp musical chops. It’s also the occasion of the first female lead guitarist recorded in Alligator’s 50-year history. And this follows her 2018 it’s also the occasion … ecent three-year stint as the first female lead guitarist in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers.
Wonderland (born Carolyn Bradford, which makes “Wonderland” an intriguing upgrade), has soaring guitar skills that match her vocals. She can turn a whisper into a shout without losing sight of the lyrical content, and build a slow, steamy opener to a torrid close. She does bawdy roadhouse and vocal sensitivity with equal skill. This excellent album shows off all of Wonderland’s skills in one stirring set:
“Fragile Peace and Certain War” opens with her stinging slide and a personal message aptly suggested by its title to match, the first of several songs with a social conscience. She follows up with a whimsical “Texas Girl And Her Boots,” an ode to her favorite footwear. They are followed by three more originals, “Broken Hearted Blues” (co-written with Greg Rzab (Bass player with Buddy Guy and the John Mayall), a fiercely torchy blues, “Fortunate Few” starts out with a loosely swinging style in front of a touch of honky-tonk piano that soars in intensity, “Crack In The Wall” is an almost languid ballad that tackles the distinctly unlanguid topic of immigration.
She has chosen her covers, and preproduced them, with great care. “The Laws Must Change” is a John Mayall tune and “Honey Bee,” a rousing Tex-Mex effort, is from Billy Joe Shaver.
I kind of favor the two closers: Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” a slick duet with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and liquid lap steel by Cindy Cashdollar (herself a very unique talent). Then the seven-minute “Loser,” by Jerry Garcia, where Carolyn starts quietly and builds toward a guitar-vocal whirlwind of a climax.
The album is produced by Dave Alvin (singer, songwriter, producer, to understate his achievements), with a guest list that includes himself on guitar on three songs, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Cindy Cashdollar on lap steel, Marcia Ball on piano, Shelly King on background vocals, Ian Fleming on accordion, and Red Young on organ and piano. Wonderland’s core road band of Bobby Perkins, bass, and Kevin Lance, drums, help push things along.
This is a excellent album, filled with a variety of complementary musical styles, great vocals from the veteran Wonderland, artful backing musicians and a production that weaves everything into place.
I couldn’t find a video from “Tempting Fate,” but here’s a live video of Carolyn performing “Open Eyes” with John Mayall:
1. Fragile Peace And Certain War (3:59) By Carolyn Wonderland
2. Texas Girl And Her Boots (4:20) By Carolyn Wonderland
3. Broken Hearted Blues (4:52) By Carolyn Wonderland, Greg Rzab
4. Fortunate Few (3:25) By Carolyn Wonderland
5. Crack In The Wall (3:09) By Carolyn Wonderland
6. The Laws Must Change (5:01) By John Mayall
7. Honey Bee (4:26) By Billy Joe Shaver
8. On My Feet Again (2:59) By Carolyn Wonderland
9. It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry (3:47) By Bob Dylan
10. Loser (7:17) By Jerry Garcia