116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Carolyn Wonderland has found it a bit more challenging to put together her own tours in recent years — and that’s not because the coronavirus shut down touring for more than a year.
Since 2018, Wonderland has been the guitarist in John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers, following in the footsteps of Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mick Taylor, Coco Montoya and Walter Trout accompanying the British blues legend.
“Trying to book my band (while playing) with him is tricky to the limit,” Wonderland said in a recent phone interview. “I thought it’ll be a few weeks and then we can go back. I get there and it’s, ‘Here’s 60 days, 50 shows in 19 countries.' Hold on.”
Mayall, 88, recently announced that he’s bringing his touring days to an end. But he’s still playing dates and Wonderland still is a Bluesbreaker.
What: Bourbon and Blues Festival (formerly known as Czech Village Blues)
Presenters: Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery of Swisher and the Linn County Blues Society
Where: McGrath Amphitheatre, 475 First St. SW, Cedar Rapids
When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022
Lineup: 3 to 4:30 p.m., Molly Nova and the Hawk featuring Bryce Janey; 5 to 6:30 p.m., Danielle Nicole; 7 to 8:30 p.m., Carolyn Wonderland; 9: to 10:30 p.m., Shemekia Copeland
Tickets: $35 advance, $40 at the gate, ages 12 and under free with paid adult; lcbs.org/bourbon-and-blues-festival
Also: Food vendors on-site; chairs provided, no need to bring your own
However, Wonderland is heading out on her own tour with her band, swinging through the McGrath Amphitheatre in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022. She’s part of the lineup of award-winning female musicians at the first Bourbon and Blues Festival.
Formerly known as Czech Village Blues, this new event is being presented by Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery of Swisher and the Linn County Blues Society. Organizers hope to grow it into a multiday event.
As Wonderland hits the road, she hopes to apply some of what she’s picked up from performing with Mayall.
“I learned how to be a better boss,” she said. “He’s generous with everyone and it’s always different shows."
Mayall handed her a list of 80 songs they do, but each show will feature 12 to 15 of them, which is to Wonderland's liking.
"That’s super cool," she said. "And he lets people go out into their own space. Playing with him definitely taught me a lot. It also let me think this is what it’s like just to be the guitar player. I’m hoping some of that rubs off on my little mess.”
Wonderland already has one tangible result of her three years with Mayall: “Tempting Fate,” the solo album she released last October.
“The whole thing came about because John Mayall is such an awesome boss and so generous,” she said. “After being with him for three years, I’d saved up some money and I thought, ‘I’ve got these songs and should make a record.’ ... I’m glad we made it before the pandemic. Otherwise, I might not have spent the money or would have given it away.”
The album, Wonderland’s first for Alligator Records, was produced by roots music master Dave Alvin, who spent a week in Austin recording Wonderland, her band and guest collaborators.
“Everybody in the band straightened right up for him,” Wonderland said. “There’s a lot of songs that changed their trajectory because of him, the mad re-arranger. That’s what he called himself. He’d say do this or take it that way. Nine times out of 10 he was right.”
Alvin played guitar on three of the songs and brought in his touring partner of the past couple years, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, to duet with Wonderland on a distinctly Texan version of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
“It’s one of those songs, we both loved it since our youth. ... Jimmie Dale sang it when he was a kid,” Wonderland said. “Dave knew that and said, ‘I know who we need to get to sing it with you.’ It was really great.”
Elsewhere on “Tempting Fate,” the title song shuffles down to Austin’s legendary blues club Antone’s for a shot with the autobiographical “Texas Girl and Her Boots”; puts a Tex-Mex spin on “Honey Bee”; and throws some punch into a rambling take on the Grateful Dead’s “Loser.”
In doing so, the blues-rooted record brings to mind Texas music legend Doug Sahm, who led the rock ’n’ rolling Sir Douglas Quintet in the ’60s; made blues and country albums; and put together the Tex-Mex supergroup Texas Tornados.
“I’m looking up at my Doughead sticker right now,” Wonderland said. “Folks like Doug and the Grateful Dead, no matter what they play, they have their own voice. I hope, after all this time, I have something like a voice now, too.”
Wonderland, who started playing guitar at age 6, was seemingly born to be a musician.
“My house had all kinds of different music playing when I was a kid,” she said. “My mom’s side, everyone played. My grandma played piano. My grandpa, it was Spike Jones and dirty jokes. My mom played guitar. She was definitely more like the Rolling Stones and The Who. My dad was (Dave) Brubeck, Wes Montgomery and Johnny Ace. I still have my dad’s Johnny Ace records.”
Her rebellion, so to speak, came when she picked up the blues in Houston clubs in the 1990s.
“Those were the clubs I could get into as a teenager with no ID,” Wonderland said. “You showed up with a guitar, ‘Come on in.’ I sucked, but I learned a lot. I don’t know how my life would have turned out if I hadn’t grown up in Houston, going to the blues clubs as a kid.”
Three decades later, Wonderland still is playing blues clubs, but she’s also playing much larger venues and festivals with Mayall.
‘I love a tight-packed dirty bar. It’s fun,” she said. “That’s where the real hardcore fans are. But I like festivals, too, where you see kids and families and people who don’t know much about you. Kids will let you know real quick if they don’t like what you’re doing. But they’ll also get up and dance without getting drunk.”
There’s another big difference between playing with Mayall and crisscrossing the U.S. with her band. And it has nothing to do with what happens on stage.
“When we were in Europe, I’d say to him, ‘You want to go to the Louvre? You want to visit the Colosseum?’ I could hear his eyes rolling back in his head. He’d done all that. He just wants to play,” she said.
“I still do that with my band — stop at some place, have some fun, be goofy. This is your life. Otherwise this pillow looks a whole lot like the one I slept on last night.”