Carolyn Wonderland, Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis, MN, 8/31/12
(We close out the month of August with this review from our Northern correspondent, Harry Gebippe)
She’s a spunky, sassy redhead with a soulful voice and formidable blues guitar chops. Bonnie Raitt? you say? Guess again: the ginger in question is Ms. Carolyn Wonderland.
A native Texan, Ms. Wonderland (nee Bradford) grew up in the Houston area, where she made several albums with her band, The Imperial Monkeys, and garnered a number of awards from the local press. But, like all good Texas musicians (not to mention those from the rest of the country), she eventually gravitated to Austin, where she has since become a regular on the lively bar circuit there.
A nearly sold-out house greeted the Wonder Woman when she and her band (Rob Hooper on drums, Cole El-Saleh on key bass and keys) took the stage at The Dakota – a testament to the buzz created by her show-stopping performance there earlier this year. She opened on lap steel, with a slow-burning version of the old Canned Heat chestnut, “On The Road Again”, with its John Lee Hooker beat. Showing off her impressive vocal range, she then offered up the title track to her 2008 release, Miss Understood, going from a cat-like purr to a throw-your-head-back-and-lean-away-from-mike howl. One more tune on the lap steel, before switching to the Telecaster for the remainder of the set,”Jack of Diamonds”, was done in classic Texas blues style (think T-Bone Walker). Ms. Wonderland’s guitar style brings to mind that of another great Austin-based blues player; the late Stevie Ray Vaughn. Eschewing a pick, Carolyn doesn’t so much play the guitar as attack it, grabbing at the strings with an open hand, as if trying to pull the notes from the instrument.
She fleshed out the set with a mix of choice covers (Los Lobos’ “Angel Dance”, and The Staples’ “Keep Your Eyes On The Prize”) and originals, including”I’m The Man”, inspired, she said, by having been awakened one night by a telemarketer’s call, asking for the man of the house. Introducing Lennon & McCartney’s “Two Of Us”, Ms. Wonderland noted that their current tour ended two days hence, at which time they’d all return to our apartments, cats, and undone laundry. In addition to her vocal and instrumental prowess, Ms. Wonderland is one heckuva whistler, leading her bandmates through a 3-part whistled refrain to that wistful Beatles tune. Switching gears, she next offered up one of the first songs Janis ever wrote, “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do?” channeling the late Port Arthur native’s trademark powerhouse vocal style to great emotional effect.
The second set showcased Ms. Wonderland’s multi-instrumental talent to full effect, adding mandolin (the original tune, “Shine On”, and a cover of Hendrix’s, “The Wind Cries Mary”) and trumpet (a cumbia, whose title I missed, as well as a song she co-wrote with Ray Benson of Asleep At The Wheel, titled “Walk On”) to her earlier repertoire. Her introduction to “Only Women Bleed” was both funny ( “This song proves that Alice Cooper was a feminist..” ) and poignant (noting that current Texas Governor and one-time Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry had recently de-funded health care for the poorest 500,000 women in Texas. ).
For her finale, Ms. Wonderland chose the Larry Campbell-penned tune, “When I Go Away”, recorded by Levon Helm on his last studio album before his death earlier this year. She spoke reverently and humbly about what a privilege it was for her to have been a part of some of Levon’s legendary Midnight Rambles at his farm in Woodstock, NY. As the audience clapped along, Ms. Wonderland rose and led her bandmates offstage, to an a cappella version of the final chorus, “And the sun’s gonna shine through the shadows/When I go away..” Good bye, Carolyn Wonderland! Hurry back!