Though it’s easy for critics to compare singer-songwriter Carolyn Wonderland with another famous blues-rock singer who emerged from Texas in the late 1960s, Janis Joplin, the truth is there’s a world of difference in their styles. For one thing, Wonderland is a killer guitarist, having spent hours honing her chops in the confines of her bedroom at her parents’ home in Houston. Wonderland also plays trumpet and makes use of it in almost every live show she does.
Because she’s from Texas and has wild flowing red hair, critics and casual music fans alike end up comparing her to Joplin, who died from a drug overdose in 1970.
Audiences can draw their own comparisons at the annual Black Potatoe Festival in Clinton, which runs Thursday through Sunday, July 12 to 15. The festival site includes four stages on the grounds of the Red Mill Museum. Wonderland performs on Saturday, July 14, at 4 p.m.
She will be accompanied by her two longtime sidemen, with whom she has toured with for much of the last decade, Cole El-Salah on keyboards and vocals and Rob Hooper on drums and vocals. Together, they take the classic power trio in whole new directions and take blues and blues rock to a whole different level. To keep things fresh, Wonderland and her bandmates like to throw in the odd classic country tune or obscure gospel song.
Wonderland was born in 1972 in Houston, where she was raised by a special education teacher mother and chemical engineer father. She began taking piano lessons as a youngster, but also began playing her mother’s vintage Martin guitar as an eight-year-old.
Wonderland said she got her first awareness of blues and blues-rock by sneaking into the clubs in downtown Houston as a 14 and 15-year-old. “I knew there was good music going on in the bars, so I used to go downtown and sneak in to hear bands,” Wonderland recalled recently from a tour stop in Albuquerque. Houston’s downtown clubs were still alive and well in the 1980s, so she heard blues people like Joe “Guitar” Hughes, Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, Miss Lavelle White, Trudy Lynn, and most importantly, Little Screaming Kenny.
“Little Screaming Kenny just floored me when I first heard him sing, ’cause I realized he had lived most of the lyrics that he sang,” Wonderland explains. “Little Screaming Kenny was a Gulf coast swamp rock blues guy, kinda like Tony Joe White, but he had a really clean tone that would bite your head off.”
After high school, Wonderland began playing in bars and eventually left Houston and made the three-hour trip to Austin, where she lived in her van during her late 20s.
“It was just a circumstance, I’d been out on tour for a while, and my landlord was elderly and she had dementia, so she hadn’t cashed my checks for rent, and all of a sudden I got home from touring and discovered I had no money in the bank, but I still had the van payments, and of course we needed that to stay on the road, so I just kinda moved to Austin at that point, but we were on the road all the time at that point, too,” she recalls.
Fortunately, once she was in Austin, she found a loyal friend in the late Clifford Antone and his sister, Susan, who ran Antone’s blues club on Guadalupe Street. She had been doing the time-consuming job of booking herself and her band, the Imperial Monkeys, all over the lower 48.
In another stroke of luck, Wonderland connected with a well-respected booking agent. “I had the great fortune of hooking up with Nancy Fly, and she’s been booking me ever since,” she says. “I’ve been working with her for the better part of a decade now.”
Wonderland says her career has been a series of baby steps. She caught the attention of the late Levon Helm, who was establishing a reputation for the quality of shows he was putting on in his home studio in Woodstock, called Midnight Rambles. Wonderland and her trio played several Midnight Rambles, one of which was attended by radio personality Don Imus, who immediately booked her band on his syndicated morning AM radio show.
“I think my career up to this point has been a series of small breaks, nice little things that happened and that was much cooler,” she says, adding, “I think the (public TV program) ‘Austin City Limits’ helped me out a great deal, ’cause those shows repeat and people everywhere say they saw me on ACL.”
“And I’d venture to say getting to play with Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel was helpful too,” she adds.
When Bob Dylan played the Backyard, a large, outdoor venue in Austin with a capacity for several thousand patrons in the spring of 2004, Dylan asked Benson about Wonderland. Benson got on his cell phone to Wonderland and said, ‘Hey, Bob Dylan would like to meet you.’ Wonderland drove as quickly as possible to the gig and said hello to Dylan after the show, giving him a copy of her album. Not a bad musician to have in your corner.
Wonderland’s most recent albums, “Miss Understood” and “Peace Meal,” include a sampling of classic blues-rock covers like Rick Derringer’s “Still Alive and Well,” and Dylan’s classic blues, “Meet Me in the Morning,” but they also include her often crafty original songs.
Her other independently released albums include “Alcohol & Salvation,” “Bloodless Revolution,” and five earlier albums with the Imperial Monkeys dating back to 1993.
“I think when you’re touring as much as we do, you never know when inspiration is going to hit,” she says of her songwriting efforts. “I remember one week we played a punk rock bar one night, a blues bar the next night, a country-western bar the next night, and a rock hall the next night. At the end of all that, I realized, it was the Chuck Berry songs that went across with every audience, so I try to write songs that sound like Chuck Berry.”
For people not that familiar with blues or Carolyn Wonderland’s style of barbecue smoked Texas roadhouse blues-rock, she promises: “It’s going to be an adventure. We’re going to try to play a bunch of different stuff: some blues, some boogie, a little bit of everything. For it to be interesting to the audience, it’s got to be interesting for everybody on stage, too,” she says.
“It’s hard to describe what anyone does anymore. We play Americana-ish music that’s drenched in the blues a bit, it’s high and not-so-lonesome music.”
Black Potatoe Festival, Red Mill Museum, 56 Main Street, Clinton. Thursday through Sunday, July 12 through 15. Performers on four stages include Carolyn Wonderland, Roy Book Binder, John Hammond, Chris Smither and the Motivators, Jimmy Vivino, Kathy Moser, the Collins Brothers, Donna Jean Godchaux Band, Chris O’ Leary Band, Mike Montrey Band, Colin Linden, Edwin McCain, the Smithereens, Sonny Landreth, Linda Sharar, Jim Weider’s Percolator Project, others.
$30, Thursday; $35, Friday; $45, Saturday; $40, Sunday. $99 for four days. Food and drink available for purchase. www.blackpotatoe.org or 908-391-0769.
Directions from Princeton: Take Route 206 north to the Somerville Circle, then take the 202/206 North exit to Route 22 West. Take the ramp to I-78 West, then take Exit 15 for NJ-173 East and turn right. Main Street is the first left.