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“Give Me Five – I’m Still Alive”: Grateful Dead Album Turns 50

The Guinness record for most live albums from a single artist is held by the Grateful Dead.

As of 2019, that figure stood at a whopping 167 — and many more have been released since then.

In part, this ongoing flood is due to the ensemble’s virtually nonstop touring over its three-decade tenure. (Indeed, remnants of the band, now called “The Dead,” are currently in the midst of a 30-show residency at the Sphere in Las Vegas.)

What’s more, the Dead allowed taping of their concerts — and their extensive organization continues to curate and release these recordings.

Somewhat surprisingly, among Deadheads there is general consensus that their best-ever show was 5/8/77 at Cornell University — a concert that’s been entered into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.

But regarding the band’s 11 studio albums — there’s more disagreement.

My own favorite is Grateful Dead from the Mars Hotel — which, having been released on 6/27/74, is observing its 50th anniversary this week. So for the moment, your Webb critic takes a break from films and books to discuss this gem from one of his favorite bands.

Often called From the Mars Hotel — or even just Mars Hotel — the beautifully engineered album features some of the Dead’s finest songwriting. Running a sprightly 37 minutes, its eight tracks include five by the legendary team of guitarist Jerry Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter.

Those include the concert staples “Scarlet Begonias,” “Ship of Fools” and “U.S. Blues.” The latter, containing the lyrics in my headline, is a sort of bemused hippie anthem laced with what Dead expert Oliver Trager calls “seat-of-the-pants optimism.” (That phrase also perfectly describes the Dead’s lone top-40 hit, 1987’s “Touch of Grey.”)

Released as a single with Garcia-Hunter’s “Loose Lucy” on the B-side, it was originally titled “Wave That Flag” and thereafter substantially rewritten by Hunter — whereupon it became for years the Dead’s go-to choice for jaunty, crowd-pleasing encores.

I once saw a shirt that read, “I’m not a Deadhead; I just like the music” — and I felt that described me to a T (if you’ll forgive the sartorial pun). Despite the culture and the concerts and the cool iconography, what I like best is the band’s composition — and for that reason, I keep a running list of my favorite Dead tunes, with the legendary “Jack Straw” at No. 1. (Incidentally, that’s a song they never recorded in the studio; only live versions exist!)

Second spot is held by “Scarlet Begonias,” once the opening track on Hotel’s Side Two (back when every album had a Side Two!). Its slinky, slippery rhythms were inspired, said Garcia, by Cat Stevens and by Paul Simon — and I dare say if you played this joyous, London-set love-song for someone who didn’t know the Dead, they might be surprised not only at the polished and expert musicianship, but also by what a happy and danceable tune it makes.

Mars Hotel’s remaining three tracks offer some fascinating trivia:

Guitarist and singer Bob Weir, who wrote many of the band’s most beloved pieces and still plays with The Dead, penned only one offering here — the rocker “Money Money,” whose mildly misogynistic lyrics led to it being dismissed from concert rotation after only three performances.

Bassist Phil Lesh — also still active in The Dead — was the group’s sole long-term member with classical training. And Hotel is their only album on which he sings twice: “Pride of Cucamonga” (literally never performed in concert) and the seven-minute masterpiece “Unbroken Chain” — which (again quoting Trager) became “the stuff of Deadhead obsession.”

Alternately soulful and jazzy, it features a mid-tune jam whose time signature I still can’t figure out to this day (I think it’s either 15/8 or 13/8); and that may be why the band never performed it live. Yet the song was so beloved that rumors commonly suggested they’d play it only on their very last tour.

And that’s exactly what happened.

The boys finally broke out “Chain” in 1995, just five months before Garcia’s death — and it was in the setlist for their final show with him at Soldier Field on 7/9/95.

Similarly notable: Their encore at that concert was another Lesh composition, the early “Box of Rain” — so the final lyric the band sang with Jerry runs thus: “Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.”

Yet after five decades, Mars Hotel is still very much “there.” Indeed, the band is honoring this august occasion with a three-disc reissue that includes a complete 1974 concert from Reno, NV.

Fifty years later, they’re still playing Nevada — and tickets remain available … for folks who want to take that long, strange trip.