Carolyn Wonderland has been called the best-kept secret in Austin, a city with a lot of superb performers who rarely travel. She has appeared once before in Ann Arbor, at Top of the Park in 2008, but it will be good to see her June 10 at the Ark, a venue where people will get to focus a bit more closely on her artistry. The club deserves kudos for bringing the best of the Austin scene north, with shows by the likes of Shinyribs and the Hot Club of Cowtown. Add Wonderland to that list–she’s an exceptional blueswoman whose career has built slowly and who has yet to receive her due.
The other line on Wonderland is that she’s the vocal reincarnation of Janis Joplin, and it’s true that she has mastered Joplin’s falsetto scream. But it seems to be a mastery born out of life as much as out of practicing. Born Carolyn Bradford, Wonderland dropped out of school in Houston to play the blues. She moved to Austin (“the land of free guitar lessons,” she says) in 2001. Living out of a van for a while, she took gigs wherever she could find them and began to attract attention–notably from the unerring talent-spotter Bob Dylan, who asked Texas producer and bandleader Ray Benson about her. Wonderland has released eight albums, and the last few (Peace Meal, Miss Understood, and Bloodless Revolution) are masterpieces.
In addition to the vocal resemblance, Wonderland does a fine version of Joplin’s early, epically desperate, and inexplicably neglected “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do?” But she’s more than a Joplin imitator. She’s a top-notch guitarist in the Stevie Ray Vaughan tradition who also plays trumpet, accordion, mandolin, and keyboards. During shows she departs from the electric guitar at unexpected times–the fusion of lyrics and strings on Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” is revealed anew by her spare electric mandolin. And Wonderland is well enough schooled in classic blues-rock to put her own stamp on the likes of Johnny Winter’s defiant “Still Alive and Well” (“Everyone I thought was cool is six feet underground”).
Wonderland writes an increasing proportion of her material, and by now she has a core of assertive foot-stompers in the same blues-heroic vein (“I ain’t got long, ain’t got long for this world. / That don’t worry me none, just a matter of being misunderstood.”). But she also has an ear for material from the folkier Texas songwriters that can be turned into blues. One of my favorites among her recent numbers is “I Found the Lions,” from the similarly underrated Terri Hendrix: “I played dead, but my pulse was too loud; / The hyenas giggled as the lions formed a crowd. / I played dead; the buzzards in the tree / Waited for the lions to make a meal out of me.”
This is extraordinary stuff in which text and music meet at very high levels. Carolyn Wonderland is far from a household name, but she’s not to be missed!