Carolyn Wonderland Makes Her Alligator Debut With ‘Tempting Fate’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Texas singer-songwriter and incendiary guitarist Carolyn Wonderland is no overnight sensation.  This writer can recall seeing her absolutely stunning live audiences with her gutsy vocals and blistering guitar playing 18 years ago. Her three-decade career includes ten albums as leader, including four produced by Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, her recent three-year stint as the first female lead guitarist in John Mayall’s Blues Breakers (and you know that history), and now her debut, Tempting Fate, rather incredibly, as the first female lead guitar artist in the famed 50-year Alligator Records history. Better yet, the album is produced by Dave Alvin, who knows a few things about fiery guitarists. Leveraging the many great musicians that both Wonderland and Alvin know, the guest list boasts Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Cindy Cashdollar on lap steel, Marcia Ball on piano, Shelly King on background vocals, Ian Fleming on accordion, Red Young on organ and piano, and Alvin playing guitar on three songs. Her core road band of Bobby Perkins on bass and Kevin Lance on drums are aboard for all tracks.

Wonderland offers ten songs, five originals, a co-write with Mayall bandmate Greg Rzab, and four covers. As the prototypical triple threat, Wonderland begins with her own politically tinged “Fragile Peace And Certain War.” Accompanied by Alvin on rhythm guitar this opening track will introduce those new to Wonderland to several of her trademark talents – searing guitar (lap steel on this one), going from a wail to a whisper in a heartbeat vocally, and setting a rollicking tone. She then unveils another of her defining traits – the bubbling little girl-like humor in “Texas Girl and Her Boots.”  She apparently has quite a collection. This one features fellow Austinites Marcia Ball and Shelly King. ‘Broken Hearted Blues,” the co-write with Rzab, is another of her rousing, combustible guitar tunes, underpinned by Austin legend Red Young’s B3. 

The swaggering “Fortunate Few” features incisive, clean picking in a Texas roadhouse groove with Red Young on the barrelhouse piano and more of Wonderland’s potent wail. “Crack in the Wall” displays her gentle, soulful side as she sings about refugees, featuring Alvin on rhythm guitar, Cashdollar on lap steel, and Ian Fleming on accordion for the Tex-Mex flavor.  It’s a standout track, revealing Wonderland’s songwriting craft. She follows that with Mayall’s “The Laws Must Change,” a much different sounding take than the icon’s original that first appeared on his landmark 1970 Turning Point.  “Honey Bee” is not the Muddy Waters song on the same name but rather was authored by Texas hero, Billy Joe Shaver. Ian Fleming returns on accordion and Wonderland shows some of her country influence alluded to in Alvin’s quote, though there are not very many guitarists who could serve up the heated solo that she delivers here. Wonderland has also developed a reputation for being a great whistler which you’ll hear in the wistful “On My Feet Again,” imbued by Young’s piano

The last two covers are highly familiar, but Wonderland puts her own inimitable stamp on each; first with Jimmie Dale Gilmore duetting on Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” followed by the Garcia/Hunter staple “Loser.” We heard Bettye LaVette slow the tune down to a simmer on saxophonist Dave McMurray’s Grateful Deadication, released this past July and covered on these pages. Wonderland too, begins at a slow pace but builds the song into a white-hot burner, featuring both her lead guitar solo, and the second from Dave Alvin who had this to say about her oft compared to Janis Joplin vocals – “…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 story of the song.”  Her take on “Loser” is the prime example.

Wonderland isn’t doing anything differently on this album than she’s been doing for three decades.  Now she has a bigger platform and some promotional muscle behind her that’s been a criminally long time in coming. She tours constantly and will certainly make the most of it.  Brace yourself for her power and prepare to be blown away.

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