From The Mars Hotel
Grateful Dead, 1974
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/13/2010
People might not have known it at the time, but Jerry Garcia and crew were getting burned out. The surprise announcement that their string of concerts at Winterland in October 1974 would be their last for an undetermined period of time was the first dose of reality (at least since the death of Ron “Pigpen” McKernan the previous year) that the party that was The Grateful Dead might not last forever.
Fortunately for everyone, the band was able to pull things together, especially coming off the disappointment that was Wake Of The Flood, and release a better album in Grateful Dead From The Mars Hotel. The jazz influence is still heard in some of the music, but this release almost tries to pull the group’s musical history all together in one album – country, ballad, rock, jazz – and it, for the most part, succeeds.
“U.S. Blues,” the pseudo-stream-of-consciousness track that opens the disc, is the first sign that not only were The Dead back on track, but that pianist Keith Godchaux (and his vocalist wife Donna) might just fit in perfectly, as this one gets things off to a rollicking good start. Even the slow ballad that follows this track, “China Doll,” can’t derail the train, and this proves to be one of Garcia’s prettiest ballads he ever came up with. (“Ship Of Fools,” the closing track of the original disc, isn’t quite the way I would have wrapped up this disc; I’d have preferred they end with something a little more upbeat. Then again, I can quickly recall that the final two studio releases from The Dead also ended on slow numbers, so I guess this shouldn’t be a complete surprise.)
Then, legend takes over. Bassist Phil Lesh takes his first of two turns at the microphone for “Unbroken Chain,” a track which damn well could be one of the best things The Dead ever recorded, second only in my mind to “Help On The Way / Slipknot! / Franklin’s Tower.” There is a reason that this track was worshipped by Deadheads, and why they welcomed its first performances on stage during The Dead’s final tour in 1995. Simply put, it is a solid piece of music from start to finish with no wasted notes.
I guess you could call “Loose Lucy” a little bit of a stumble, but it’s simply a fun little track that I can hardly fault it. The same, though, can’t be said for “Money Money” – surprisingly, the only track featuring guitarist/vocalist Bob Weir as the lead throat, and one of the few missteps in his songwriting catalog.
I also wish I could sing the praises of “Pride Of Cucamonga,” the second track with Lesh taking the lead on the microphone, but this country-fried song just doesn’t have the same kind of magic that “Unbroken Chain” or the legendary “Scarlet Begonias,” which precedes this track, were so filled with.
The 2004 reissue (originally released as part of the Beyond Description box set) tacks on a lot of tracks that, honestly, don’t add anything to the legacy of the original disc. Studio outtakes of “Loose Lucy,” “Pride Of Cucamonga,” and “Unbroken Chain” (the latter featuring Lesh giving instructions on chord changes) don’t light the speakers on fire the way that the acoustic “Weather Report Suite” did on the Wake Of The Flood r-issue. As for the live tracks, diehard Deadheads who have worn out their cassettes of live shows will surely be pleased by the first official versions of “Wave That Flag” (an early version of “U.S. Blues”) and “Let It Rock,” but neither of these are anything spectacular, nor are the live takes of “Scarlet Begonias” or “Money Money.”
It’s not often that I would say that a listener should stick to an original version of an album, but in the case of Grateful Dead From The Mars Hotel, it really is true that less can sometimes be more. The reissue is great for diehard Deadheads, but the tracks can hardly be considered to be “must-owns” for the casual listener.