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.
A couple weeks ago 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 I 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?
Scarlet: 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?
Scarlet: 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?
Scarlet: 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?
Scarlet: That happened with fate as well. I met the grand-daughter 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 and 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.
EN: You have about ten albums. What’s your favorite?
Scarlet: My favorite is Behind the Crimson Veil. It’s instrumental, and the most highly developed compositionally and yet it’s inspiring. It takes you on a little journey. It’s got elements of classical, world music and jazz. I think it’s a very deep album.
EN: Best selling?
Scarlet: Probably my Celtic Dreams. I had no clue that I was going to end up composing so much Celtic music but I did, and it’s something I ended up loving to do.
EN: What was it like to play in Hibbing two years ago? I hear it was a great concert.
Scarlet: Oh fantastic. I really loved the festival. I can see that it’s a well-loved festival. I was amazed to see how many people from all over came to it and what a tribute it is to what the town does.
EN: In a Village Voice interview you agreed that the word “haunting” was a suitable adjective for your sound in Hurricane. What adjectives would you use to describe yourself and your music today?
Scarlet: That’s a tough one. I play many different styles. The one thing I hear from other people is that I have a signature sound, whether playing rock or blues or recording on somebody else’s track, they can identify that it’s me.
EN: If you hadn’t had a career in music, what would you have done with your life?
Scarlet: I probably would have been in the environmental movement. I would have gotten a degree in that area in some way. I love nature and do a lot of things that relate to conservation… keeping rivers clean…. Keeping species from going extinct. I really liked playing the River Festival in Minnesota last year, protecting the Kinni River.
I am doing it in my own small way. I’m currently on the Board of Directors of Hollywood Beautification Team, which plants thousands of trees and paints murals in schools in S. California. I’m also a hands-on volunteer with an Exotic Animal sanctuary housing big cats, wolves, bears as well as involved with the Aquarium of the Pacific.
EN: You were also featured in a recent book Sea Voices by Elizabeth Laul Healey featuring top marine scientists, activists, celebrities, musicians who raise awareness about ocean conservation. When did you last see Bob?
Scarlet: Not recent… over the years I have seen him many times.
EN: You live in L.a. now. What do you like about Los Angeles?
Scarlet: It has a lot happening culturally. It’s a vibrant center for music. A lot of stuff being recorded here. There are films being made. It’s pretty much a place for culture and entertainment.
Don't wait till it's too late. Get your tickets today for Desire In Duluth at Ticketworks.
Portions of this interview originally appeared in Duluth's alternative newspaper, the Reader Weekly
Photos courtesy Scarlet Rivera. Portrait of Young Scarlet by Ennyman.