Imagine, for a moment, spritelike bluesy guitarist Carolyn Wonderland in leather, not flannel. Picture her trademark red mop dyed black with peacock-blue highlights. Sprinkle a few dancers behind her on stage. Replace her musicians with a canned track. She's opening for Madonna. It's her worst nightmare.
Now imagine a real-life scene at a tony downtown Houston restaurant in 1992. A befuddled Wonderland is picking at the most expensive meal the 19-year-old has ever seen. Across the table is a major-label record suitor from Los Angeles, and Wonderland can scarcely believe her luck. This guy wants to sign her and her eclectic hippie band, the Imperial Monkeys. As they say on VH1's Behind the Music, though, triumph quickly turned to tragedy. "He says he'll give me $50,000, and I can't believe it," Wonderland recalls. "But then he says I have to drop the band, stop playing the guitar, lose 15 pounds and sing pop."
There are a lot of musicians who would gleefully take that deal. But Wonderland, a Langham Creek High School dropout, told the L.A. mogul where to stick the jack. The rest is history. The last decade has seen Wonderland survive a near-fatal Nevada van wreck, surf the couches of innumerable friends and face down more than her share of drunks who want to either mess with her or follow her home, or both. And, oh yeah, she's written some emotion-drenched songs and kicked out plenty of gritty guitar licks along the way.
Last Concert Cafe, 1403 Nance
Tuesdays; 713-226-8563. She also performs Saturday, November 3, at the Go Girl Music Fest at the Continental Club, 3700 Main Street, 713-529-9899.
With all that has happened to her, you would think that just being able to release another album would be a coup, but Wonderland's self-produced Alcohol and Salvation is even better than that. Released in late September, her first CD in four years reflects the steady refinement of her songwriting, her growing confidence as a guitarist and vocalist, and her willingness to push herself up to and perhaps beyond her limits.
All of this is evident on the semiautobiographical song "Feed Me to the Lions," in which Wonderland plays piano and sings about a distraught woman in her car with a bottle of Thunderbird between her knees, struggling through an abusive relationship. It's powerful stuff written by a woman who says she is better at writing about relationships than living in them.
Even Wonderland's at times clumsy piano technique doesn't detract from the song's heavy vibe. If you ask Wonderland about her abilities, she'll merely shrug the question off. "I know I have limitations on guitar and piano, but I like the fact that the piano has a different musical vocabulary, and I want to keep at it," she says, adding that she's been fooling around on the mandolin and pocket trumpet as well. "I guess it's my Barbara Mandrell phase. But I feel some kind of weird freedom in sitting down [at a Hohner pianet] during shows."
About her guitar playing Wonderland is equally modest. "Well, I suck less," she says, of her self-described "chicken-pickin' with the head cut off" style. "I'm limited by what I don't know yet, but, okay, yeah, I am getting a little better, just from jamming with more and more folks."
The jams are coming fast and furious for Wonderland and her band (guitarist Scott Daniels, longtime bassist Calvin Hall and drummer Eldridge Goins). Clearly, her stock is on the rise since her 1999 move to Austin. Wonderland is now booking more than 200 gigs a year, including a regular Wednesday-nighter at Austin's Saxon Pub. She's co-writing with Guy Forsyth (their "Pieces of a Postcard" is on the new CD), and she sang backup on a recent Jerry Lightfoot CD. Just a couple of weeks ago she backed up another formerly Houston-based chanteuse, Miss Lavelle White, on a recording of the gospel nugget "Oh, Happy Day."
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But the Bayou City is still a lot like home to Wonderland. More than a dozen ex-Imperial Monkeys and longtime collaborators like J.P. Conga and Little Screamin' Kenny (whom Wonderland calls her fave guitarist) are still on the scene here. "It wasn't like I thought there was something wrong with Houston," she says. "I mean obviously I still play here all the time. And darlin', if Houston isn't the blues I don't know what is. But I was in a songwriting slump and was damn near starting to write the same songs over again, so I needed a change of scene and came down to the land of free guitar lessons."
She's no mere regional artist, though. This past summer saw Wonderland's eighth trip to the annual bikers pilgrimage/rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. There, the Imperial Monkeys performed on a bill with Steppenwolf and the Allman Brothers. She concedes that she wore lipstick to the Sturgis gig, because the show was taped by the USA Network as part of a documentary on the festival.
Wonderland is completely at home with the rowdy hawg choogling throngs at the rally. "I grew up around bikers all my life, and I love the people who go there. They don't treat me like some chick; to them I'm a guitar player who feels the same way about her guitar and amps as they do about their bikes." But there are exceptions to every rule. She remembers a time when a drunken fan told her she was pretty good on guitar for a girl. Wonderland's retort: "Let me get this straight. You mean if I had a penis you wouldn't like my guitar playing?"
No, Carolyn Wonderland doesn't take any guff from anybody, be they drunk bikers with an attitude or slick L.A. record moguls with a bill of goods for sale.