Scarlet Rivera, Dream-Weaving Violinist from Dylan’s Desire

In preparation for this year’s Dylan Fest, the Armory Arts & Music Center is presenting a concert featuring famed violinist Scarlet Rivera with Gene LaFond & The Wild Unknown on the Weber Hall Music stage at UMD. The May 18 concert is called Desire In Duluth because Scarlet’s mesmerizing violin contributed significantly to Dylan’s sound in his Desire album. Scarlet’s career in music has spanned many genres, from rock to jazz (she performed with Duke Ellington’s orchestra at Carnegie Hall) to world music and even Celtic sounds.

This past week I had a chance to catch up with Ms. Rivera, who said she always loves coming to Minnesota. Her life is an example of how, as Bruce Barton has noted, small things can have great consequences, a notion that can inspire us all. I especially appreciated her transparent warmth and down-to-earth authenticity.

EN: How did you first become interested in violin?

Scarlet Rivera: In grade school we had an orchestra… Fortunately those were the days when schools had orchestras, and I was lucky enough to have that. Plus my parents wanted to give my sister and me lessons and I chose piano. After a year I decided I wasn’t all that crazy about piano, so I chose violin, and that was a fit.

EN: What’s the backstory on how you came to play with Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue?

SR: It’s in many books… and in some places it’s right and some books not. It happened through fate, honestly. These kinds of things don’t just happen. We were destined to meet one way or another. I was literally walking down the street with a violin case. I was going to a rehearsal on the Lower East Side. He was driving by. Many books say he was riding a limousine, but Dylan fans would know he wouldn’t be that ostentatious.  He would not want to be seen. He was blending in, in a normal old car. He rolled down the window and asked if I could play. He struck up a conversation and I started talking to him. He asked another musical question and I started pondering who this is. After a while he said, “I really have to hear you play.”

After I finished talking to him and decided to get in the car, we went to his loft/studio a few blocks away. He played many songs on guitar and he played a number of songs on piano and asked me just to play along. He didn’t tell me what key, he didn’t give me any charts and none of the songs were known songs at the time. Only unreleased songs. He liked what he was hearing and started to smile. At the end of that he asked if would go to along to a club to hear a friend of his play. I said, “For sure.”  

The club was The Bottom Line, and his friend that was playing was the Muddy Water Band. At one point he went up on the stage and played a song with the Muddy Water Band, and at the end of that song he said, “Now I would like my violinist to come up.” So he was pretty much announcing to me that I had been hired. So I went up and played a song with the Muddy Water Band and they all seemed to like it as well. After the show we all hung out till dawn with the band and a couple days later he called me and told me to show up at Columbia Studios [where we recorded Desire].

EN: How long were you with the Rolling Thunder Revue?

SR: The whole length of it all the way through the second part, which went into the Western states, ending in Colorado. The core band stayed the same throughout. People were added at various places. That was an incredibly exciting tour to be on. It wasn’t just any old tour. [laughing] This was the tour to be on.

EN: Any highlights?

SR: The whole thing was a highlight. Every night was an incredible unfolding of amazing music and interactions that I knew would never happen again. You took your cues from Bob. For example, “Isis” changed enormously from the album cut to live. You had to go with it. The live performances became really exciting and fiery and fast. I would follow whichever direction it went.

EN: You later landed a role as soloist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. How did that happen?  

SR: That happened with fate as well. I met the granddaughter of Duke Ellington socially. We were at a little gathering, a small girl’s party, and I brought my violin to play. I didn’t even know who she was, actually, but later my friend who invited me to the party introduced her as Gaye Ellington, daughter of Mercer, who was the conductor and leader of the band after Duke Ellington. Toward the end of the party she wanted me to meet her dad, Mercer Ellington, and she did the very next day. There was another band member in the room and he had me do some improv. He talked to me about jazz and had me play a few other little things and asked what I was doing on April whatever-it-was. I said it looks like I’m free on that day, and he asked, “Would you like to play Carnegie Hall with us?” That was the first thing I did with him. I did solo in Carnegie Hall, in “The Black, Brown and Beige Suite,” which hadn’t been performed in forty years. That’s historic. Then I played the Kennedy Center in Washington. I also played the festival of Venice with him. He brought a gospel choir.  

Read the rest of this and other interviews at Ennyman’s Territory. Tickets for the concert Desire in Duluth are available at Ticketworks.com

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Ed Newman

Director of advertising at AMSOIL, Inc. in Superior. Newman is also an artist, a musician and author of four books. He has been interviewing interesting people for over 25 years.

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