Carolyn Wonderland retakes the spotlight after tenure with blues master John Mayall
Not just any player gets the call to be in John Mayall’s band.
Early members of legendary British artist’s group included musicians who went on to form Cream (Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce) and Fleetwood Mac (Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Peter Green). And guitarist Mick Taylor did time with Mayall both before and after his 1970s tenure with the Rolling Stones.
So Austin guitarist Carolyn Wonderland knew it was no small honor when she got the call a few years ago. “John has this amazing finishing school that nobody ever wants to leave,” says Wonderland, who signed on to tour with Mayall in 2018 and also has done two records with him.
“Whenever we're playing somewhere, he's so happy to be there,” she adds. “You can see his inner child — it’s like, ‘This is what we're doing, and we're still getting away with it.’”
The 87-year-old Mayall announced in September that he’ll no longer tour — which, serendipitously, dovetails with Wonderland’s plans to ramp up her solo career again. Released last month, “Tempting Fate” is her 12th album but first for Alligator Records, a 50-year-old Chicago label with a catalog that includes albums by Albert Collins, Buddy Guy and many other blues greats.
Wonderland celebrates the album’s release on Sunday at the Continental Club (9:30 p.m., $22), wrapping up a three-show Texas run that also includes a Friday gig in her hometown of Houston. Then it’s off to the East Coast for 10 shows in 11 days before Thanksgiving.
“Tempting Fate” is a lively and confident album that showcases both her distinctive guitar playing and her fiery lead vocals on material that draws from blues, rock & roll, country and folk. Supplementing six original tunes are carefully chosen covers from the catalogs of Mayall, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and Billy Joe Shaver.
Wonderland recorded the album locally at engineer Stuart Sullivan’s Wire Recording Studio but brought in Grammy-winning musician Dave Alvin from Los Angeles to produce it. The two had played some shows together over the years but had never collaborated in the studio.
“We’d known each other for maybe seven years, but we weren’t super tight or anything,” Wonderland says. When it came time to record “Tempting Fate,” though, Alvin was her choice “in a perfect world” to produce.
Alvin, who’d had Wonderland on one of his “Roots on the Rails” West Coast train tours, was already a fan and gladly hopped aboard.
“She’s a blues-based player who doesn’t really play like a lot of the blues-based players play,” Alvin says. “I think it’s one of the reasons John Mayall likes her so much. She’s just got her own thing.”
As a result, “it wasn’t like making your typical sort of blues record,” he says. “She can certainly do some flashy guitar playing, but it’s not really her deal. She’s a very emotional guitar player, very melodic at times, just unpredictable. And that’s what I really like.”
Alvin’s presence also allowed Wonderland to realize a literal dream she’d had. Austin country-folk legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s guest appearance on the Bob Dylan cover “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” grew out of a conversation she had with Alvin.
“I was telling him that I’ve had dreams where I had someone else's voice and I would sing through my whole set,” she says. “That’s only happened twice: Mose Allison was one, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore was the other. And Dave was like, ‘Well, let's call Jimmie and see if he's around.’”
Alvin and Gilmore have been closely connected in recent years, touring together and recording the 2018 album “Downey to Lubbock” as a duo. He remembered Gilmore singing “It Takes a Lot to Laugh” at some of their shows and knew it could be a good fit, even though the two artists interpreted the song differently.
“I thought their voices would mesh well together,” Alvin said. “You don't expect to hear Jimmie Dale Gilmore on an Alligator record, but as I’d said when we did our album together, Jimmie is a great blues singer.”
Other musicians on the album include bassist Bobby Perkins, drummer Kevin Lance and B3 organ ace Red Young, whom Wonderland credits for improving the arrangement and feel of her jazz-tinged original tune, “On My Feet Again.”
And, naturally, Wonderland’s close friends Marcia Ball and Shelley King appear on the track “Texas Girl and Her Boots.” In recent years, the three musicians have seemed almost like a successor to the circa-1990 Antone’s-based trio that featured Ball, Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton.
“The three of us crash each other’s gigs every chance we get,” Wonderland says. Indeed, a Wonderland/King show at Bee Cave’s Hill Country Galleria in September became an impromptu trio performance when Ball showed up unbilled. (They jokingly christened their group “King WonderBall.”)
They’re also all on the board of Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers (HOME), a local nonprofit that assists older Austin-area musicians with housing expenses. That’s helped them to bond in ways that reach beyond their musical connections — and also just to spend more time with each other.
“The first 10 years I knew Marcia, we would only see each other on the road,” Wonderland says. “It would be like Norway or Kansas City or whatever. It wasn’t until we started doing the charity thing at HOME that we got to actually hang out together.”
Wonderland and King also are booked to play the new outdoor stage at Austin’s Armadillo Christmas Bazaar on Dec. 19. Wonderland is playing a few final road gigs with Mayall in December, but 2022 will bring more focus on her own band to support “Tempting Fate.”
Mayall’s music likely will still have its place in her own shows, though. Among the highlights of “Tempting Fate” is a song Mayall wrote in the late 1960s called “The Laws Must Change.”
At Mayall’s concerts, he typically gives Wonderland the spotlight for a song or two. One night, she pulled out “The Laws Must Change,” much to her boss’ surprise.
She says, “It wasn’t in his list of 80 songs that he was doing, so I thought, ‘Well, why don’t I just do one of his songs?’ The first time I did it, he just looked over at me and started giggling — like audibly giggling on the mic.”
The sociopolitical awareness of “The Laws Must Change” at times extends to Wonderland’s own songs, as well, particularly on the new album’s tunes “Fragile Peace and Certain War” and “Crack in the Wall.”
“When I’m angry, I always seem to find a pen,” Wonderland says. “You’ve got to continue to fight. I don't want the next generation to come up with the B.S. that we had to deal with. I want to make it better.”