Wonderful Wonderland on a Sunday night
Carolyn Wonderland during her last Crown Room appearance opened her set to a handful of people, but by the time she’d finished her first song the place was packed.
It’s a recurring musical phenomenon, and something the artist from Austin is happy to experience.
“It’s like the pied piper,” she said “I’m always happy it happens there. That’s cool. It’s better than the alternative: ‘She pulled out the guitar and they ran.’ “
A Texas peacenik, Wonderland has fiery red hair, stands just over 5-foot tall and is larger than life. She’s been compared to Janis Joplin so much she finally acquiesced and covered “What Good Can Drinkin’ Do.”
With rock-star reverence, concertgoers line up between sets and after shows to met Wonderland, a ritual she accepts with chagrin.
“I don’t have anything all that interesting to say but ‘thanks for coming,’ ” she said, adding the procession stalls when a guitar fanatic starts an extended conversation. “Everybody else in line are rolling their eyes, going, ‘Ahh, guitar dorks. Great.’ But I’m right there with them.”
Wonderland started playing her mother’s guitars when she was 8.
“She taught me three chords and then I went off in search of the missing fourth chord,” she said.
Wonderland is tough when it comes to flying with her guitar. She won’t travel with her Gibson, instead opting for a Telecaster, which has a replaceable neck.
“I refuse to check it,” she said. “I try to be the nicest doormat of a person except when it comes to getting on an airplane and people trying to take my guitar from me because they won’t replace it. They won’t fix it. There’s nothing you can do. I’ve had five friends check guitars. Three of them still have guitars. Those are not odds you can take when you’re flying to a gig.”
Wonderland grew up a prodigy in Houston, sneaking into bars to hear “Little Screaming Kenny” Blanchet, Joe “Guitar” Hughes and Jerry Lightfoot.
Locals, a long-closed club, was one of the places that didn’t care if the teenager played there for quarters. She waited until she was over 21 before she told her mother about the night she jammed at Locals with Townes Van Zandt.
“It was a weeknight, 3 or 4 in the morning,” Wonderland said. “We were passing the guitar back and fourth, and it was really cool. We were both drinking.
“I really liked the stuff he sang, he was killing me, and then he pulled out ‘Pancho and Lefty.’ I said, ‘My mom’s band used to play that, it was one of my favorite songs. I used to think it was one of theirs until I heard Willie do it.’ He said, ‘Oh, thanks, that’s one of our most popular songs.’ And I was like, ‘You f—— liar.’ And the guy, Cat Daddy, who runs the place, asked Townes, ‘Do you want me to throw her out?’ He said no and he handed me the guitar and it dawned on me right then, that’s the Van ‘Zandy.’ “
Wonderland lived across the street from Uncle John Turner, the Johnny Winter Band drummer.
“I was surprised when he said, ‘Sure, I’ll come play with you.’ He taught me how to shuffle. Not that I’m any good at it. It was one of my favorite things he taught me on the drums.
“I was trying to get all fancy footed with the kick drum and he stops and he laughs and he says, ‘Well, if you can’t walk it how do you expect anyone to dance to it?’ “
One of the staples of a Wonderland concert is “Still Alive and Well,” the Rick Derringer song he produced for Johnny Winter. Wonderland seems embarrassed recalling how she used to ask Turner to play it.
“Don’t you want to revisit this song with me, your dorky neighbor?” she laughed. “When I finally got it down and had it going on in my band, I was really happy (before he died) he got to hear me play it a couple of times and he gave it a thumbs up.”
Wonderland always enjoyed visiting Austin but thought the town might not be as fun if she lived there. However, she’s happy to have relocated there in 1999.
“It’s the land of free guitar lessons, a great place to live,” she said. “A lot of cities where you’d have this many musicians you would find it to be a far more competitive scene. Not so here. Everybody’s in everybody’s band. And if they’re not, they are at each other shows, cheering each other on. It’s an unusual little bubble we live in.”
With plans to release a new album this fall, Wonderland has been working in the studio before going on tour. She will spend 72 of 78 days on the road with her new husband. That’s right, Wonderland, who released “Miss Understood” in 2008, is now a Mrs. She married in March comedy writer and former “Saturday Night Live” comic A. Whitney Brown.
Brown, who did “SNL’s” Weekend Update, was praised by the program’s current news anchor.
“I associate him with the age when I was falling in love with ‘Saturday Night Live,'” said Seth Meyers, who performs Saturday at South Shore. “I have very fond memories of A. Whitney Brown.”
Wonderland said she writes songs in the band’s van “mostly when everybody’s asleep and I’m driving,” she said. “I never listen to the radio when I’m driving. I’m always trying to piece something together. Musicians tend to be a little bit crazy. There’s maybe not a voice but always a song going on in the back of your head.”
She said she looks forward to playing in Tahoe every year and is a fan of Crystal Bay Casino sound engineer Blake Beeman.
“It sounds great,” she said. “The people are there to have fun. That’s a huge plus. It’s always fun. Blake’s so bad ass, man. I don’t know if you can type that.”