Old/New Albums: Delaney & Bonnie’s “Motel Shot”

motelshotA little over a year ago, John Mayer was in the heyday of his artistic renaissance. He had just released a second album of country & western-inflected tunes and Colleen and I saw him perform outside of Chicago, 10 years to the day of our first ever JM concert together, at the same venue (a very fitting coincidence). At this concert, he played a wide range of tunes from his back catalog as well as new stuff, and he also covered a song “Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad” by Delaney & Bonnie.

Which led me to this album. Motel Shot is a very raw album; listening to it feels like 1:30 AM at a house party where the Jim Beam and light beer is flowing and the white guys remember there are guitars somewhere in the house and head to the garage to start jamming (sidebar: I despise this word and hate that there isn’t another suitable word that conveys the same concept in the English language). This party scenario is taking place in Nashville for some reason.

This whole album sounds like the drunken demos of a big group of country rock musicians. And for good reason, it basically is (minus the drunk part). Motel Shot features about 700 fantastic musicians, and with no real production value to speak of, it sounds like they all went into the studio (or garage in my scenario), picked up whatever instrument was within reach and just started playing old gospel tunes and blues standards they loved.

You can hear tambourines being shaken, somebody banging on the old-timey bar piano, strummed acoustic guitars float in and around all of it, and then there’s usually a djembe-like drum being hit, providing some semblance of percussion.

For not being an actual “live” album, Motel Shot sounds more impromptu than any album I can even recall right now. There sounds like zero attempt to actually have a lead vocal part anywhere on the album, as there are voices coming in and out, singing lines and adding “woos!” and other various exclamations as the spirit arises in them.

And for all the reasons mentioned, I dislike this album. Honestly, listening to southern rockers grab some guitars and jam for 45 minutes would be a dream come true for a lot of people, but it just doesn’t catch my ear in the slightest.

Which is kind of surprising, if for nothing but the list of collaborators on this album. Aside from Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, you’ve got Duane Allman, Stephen Stills, Joe Cocker, Dave Mason, Gram Parsons, and Leon Russell. That is an impressive lineup. It just doesn’t coalesce into something I enjoy.

As an aside, I’d also like to highlight the Robert Johnson cover, “Come On In My Kitchen.” Let’s face it, white people love to appropriate black culture. We’ve been appropriating it for the better part of a century, and musicians like Eric Clapton and Led Zeppelin have made entire careers out of it.

There are times when it works well and creates some great art (in the case of both Clapton and Zeppelin) and other times when it falls flat and borders on off-putting, or at its worst, racist. In the case of this cover, it lands somewhere around off-putting.

I just feel like Delaney & Bonnie would be the types to have a confederate flag bumper sticker, you know? Sure, I’m making a completely superficial judgment based on their music alone, but it doesn’t seem way off. Some quick Wikipedia research tells me that Delaney was born in Mississippi, which fits my stereotype, while Bonnie actually punched Elvis Costello after he made some infamous racist remarks at a hotel in the late ’70s, so she doesn’t totally fit my assumption. Maybe my problem is just with Delaney.

Add also that the word “nickel” is sung to sound exactly like the n-word and this tune just doesn’t sit well with me. I seriously had to rewind and listen to that one part like 10 times before looking up the lyrics to discover he was saying “nickel.” Not great.

Aside over. Ultimately, to my ear, none of what you hear on this record is that great. This is one of those weird conundrums where I don’t actually think a particular “classic” artist is that good. Bob Dylan is a great example, obviously a groundbreaking and hugely popular artist who changed the musical and social face of his culture. But comparing vocal ability to someone else? There are countless people who have a “better” voice than his.

And that’s where I’m landing with Delaney & Bonnie (especially this album, but it could apply to most of their work). Classic old southernish rock, just not particularly that great. Take a listen to “Rock Of Ages.” The whole drunken garage jam is no more apparent than during this tune. It just doesn’t sound good. The instrumental is so simple it could be picked up by any average guitar plunker in about an hour, and the vocal is best described as a wail. It sounds like Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold got hammered and recorded a live acoustic gospel album. Yeesh.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Never Ending Song Of Love
  2. Will The Circle Be Unbroken
  3. Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad
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