November 25, 2011
The Kessler Theater
Dallas, TX USA
Review by Karlyn Suggs
Photos by Giovanni Gallucci
Nestled between two established neighborhoods in North Oak Cliff, on a once declining thoroughfare, is the indomitable Kessler Theater. The iconic Dallas institution once housed the Ellen Gruber Embroidery Company. After the owner's death, the theater sat empty for years. Not anymore. The newly renovated venue is a shining jewel in the resurging area. As the historic neighborhood slowly regains its luster, the fully renovated Kessler is doing its part by booking top-notch talent. One such act was Carolyn Wonderland, the blues playing extraordinaire, who graced the stage to a packed house November 25.
This Texas native is currently on tour supporting her recently released CD, Peace Meal.
Shortly before she takes the stage with her other two band mates, drummer Rob Hooper and keyboardist Cole El Saleh, Wonderland appears with her guitar case in hand and begins to set up her equipment for the evening. A surprised crowd watches Carolyn's every move. The anticipation builds as a flurry of activity takes place on stage. After a few minutes of arranging and rearranging, she disappears. The audience is buzzing waiting for the show to begin. They didn't have to wait long.
As the lights slowly dimmed, the trio appears from behind the curtain, and enters the stage. Wonderland straps on her Telecaster, walks up to the mic and thanks the audience for coming to the show. She then launches into "Victory of Flying," the second track on her new album, not a bad choice to loosen the fingers and warm up the vocal chords. After the song is over, she tells the audience she wrote the song about a little bird, to which Rob Hooper adds, "An adorable little bird." The chemistry in this trio is especially tight this evening. The first song primes the crowd for the knockout punches Wonderland is about to deliver.
Before Carolyn proceeds with the next tune, "What Good Drinking Can Do," she admits to 'stealing' it from its owner. By the end of the song, she owns it. Her voice is strong and clear as she sings from that certain place inside all blues performers where emotions simmer and brew. After "Two Trains", she pauses for a moment, then announces she will play another song she 'took' from a friend Vince Welnick. As she closes her eyes and sings the opening line, the emotional aspects of the song start to take over. The audience is fully rapt. The lady in the seat next to me is motionless, completely lost in the moment. The man behind her is nodding and applauding, entranced by what he sees unfolding before him on stage. As I look at other people in the audience, the reaction on faces all around me is the same. They are all spellbound by what's unfolding before them. In those seven minutes on stage, Wonderland's ode to her dear friend's tune has won the audience completely over. As soon as her magic fingers finish transforming her guitar, she whispers thanks and kisses the Telecaster.
This is already one hell of a show, and Carolyn is just warming up. She switches guitars, and takes a seat with the lap steel. Her skill with the instrument equals that of her Tele. Strumming to the gospel tinged "Only God Knows When," the tempo is kicked up a notch with the steady beat of Hooper's drumming. While Wonderland is constantly amazing the audience with her extraordinary skill with stringed instruments, her band mates are holding their own quite well. Hooper is not only fun and entertaining to watch, his enthusiasm for the music is contagious. Cole El Saleh has an assortment of keyboards surrounding him. Usually a trio consists of a guitar, drums and a bass. Not this unorthodox combination. It has been built to showcase the multi-talented Wonderland. Before this evening is over, she will even surprise and delight the audience by blowing on a trumpet during the very steamy Los Lobos cover, "Cumbia Raza".
Throughout her 90-minute set, Carolyn Wonderland plays with fervor and passion. Those emotions are felt by the audience, which loves her for it. By the end of the evening, after the spellbinding "Walk On" closes the show, a drained and spent audience calls out her name, begging for more. The sound engineer walks on stage to tell one and all that Carolyn's voice is spent. He offers his sincere apologies, but there will be no encore. In an odd way, the news is comforting. Without any doubt, every person in the audience knows Carolyn Wonderland has given them everything she's got, and then some. No one is really disappointed by the news - sad perhaps - but absolutely not unhappy.
When it comes to the blues, it should be up front and personal. Especially if you are Texas born and bred. Chicago may have an edge on the Lone Star when it comes to vocals, but when it involved the guitar mastery of the art, the musicians in this state can hold their own with anyone. Carolyn Wonderland is no exception. The blues is an extremely personal style of music. It not only speaks to the performer, but to the listener as well. It not only reflects our sorrows, but celebrates the joys as well. Music is and should be personal. When it comes to the blues, the songs reflect our sorrows and celebrate our joys. Most of all, it's an unspoken form of communication that transcends mere words. Tonight, the genius of Carolyn Wonderland was on full display. It was a great conversation I highly recommend you don't miss the next time she's in a town close to you.