“No, I didn’t travel with any snakes or candelabras,” Scarlet Rivera was telling me. I had brought up the film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorcese in which she plays a starring support role. When I asked her about her reaction to the film, the first words out of her mouth were about the things that weren’t true. Rivera who played violin on all of the tracks of Desire and was Dylan’s stage foil on the mythical caravan tour, seemed to take the tongue in cheekness of it all in stride while pointing out for the record that no, she didn’t run off with one of Ronnie Hawkins band members.
“What she didn’t say said a lot,” Bob Dylan was caught on camera reflecting on Rivera and the purported trunk of accompaniments she carried with her on tour in 1975-76. He said it all with a straight face that made you wonder how Cate Blanchett would have played it.
When Rivera stood on the red carpet for the Netflix premiere, it was a revelation seeing herself on the screen. Immersed in some of the most powerful performances of Dylan’s career. “I was mesmerized because I never saw how dynamic it was. I felt it and I was in the power of it but now I saw what the audience saw and how riveting it was and is and will always be.”
Rivera’s face could be seen painted with an Excalibur-sword signifying strength and protection and a butterfly representing transformation.
“I was definitely transforming in a very visible, public way,” she reflects. “It was a symbol of what I was going through. There’s another mystery….I really never painted my face before and I never did it after.”
Scarlet Rivera has always had the fire, fury and finesse of improvisation as she’s had since she was discovered by Dylan walking down the street carrying her violin and thrust into sessions for what would become a remade Desire. Across her career she’s explored explored rock jazz fusion and Celtic instrumentation. Her early “Scarlet Fever” still has an infectious and propulsive r & b dance groove that’s like a period piece dusted off from the late Seventies disco era.
As she will tell you, the beauty of the fiddle is its versatility. “You can play a Tchaikovsky violin concerto and you can play a gritty Cajun piece. There’s beautiful soaring New Age music and string friction. It’s as versatile as the player. It has very few limits.”
But until now she’d never discovered her own voice as she has on her new EP All of Me. The road to being lead vocalist didn’t come right away. Rivera was attending a session five years ago and was prompted to step out and sing lead vocal on the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower.” She admits it was a struggle at first and didn’t really like hearing herself sing. When she got the thumbs up from others, she decided to take their word and go for it
On the title track “All of Me,” Rivera reflects on a lifetime, citing all of the personal struggles and mistakes she’s made along the way. The rollicking groove swings and gets celebratory and soulful backing by the singers Kathy Merrick and Nikki Crawford of Jack Mack fame. “It’s all led me to be who I am right here, right now. So all of me is here right now,” she reflects laughing.
The song cycle for All of Me began shortly after the 2016 presidential election when she fell into deep depression. After realizing what had happened, she asked herself, “What’s next?” Feeling like she couldn’t sleep without doing or saying something, she decided to put pen to paper and wrote “Lady Liberty.”
Rivera’s nasally and weathered vocal underlies The dark dark and apocalyptic tone of the song for a dystopian time. Rivera delivers an indictment for a country that’s lost its way in a scathing, scolding lecture that approaches a rant. The phrasing is Dylanesque and the nasally gravelly tone sounds like it was run through a Marianne Faithful voice decoder, evoking the nation’s pain over the last four years.
Rivera draws parallels with today’s tunes in the song “Dust Bowl” which opens the EP. inspired by a visit to the Guthrie Center she made with fellow traveler Eric Anderson, Rivera revealed how the first man made environmental disaster of the 1930’s swept away generations of families. The singer who views herself as a self-described “earth guardian” as well as social, animal and peace activist, tried to bring it full circle to the threat to entire ecosystems and endangered species we’re seeing today.
“All those things seemed separate, but the monster dust cloud connected them all,” she wrote on her Facebook page likening it to the Rachel Carson book Silent Spring. “Yet it was denied in Washington DC at the time. Rivera hints that salvation could be fading if we don’t confront the environmental crisis at our doorstep.”
In “Songbird,” Rivera pays tribute to Joni Mitchell whom she first met on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Rivera’s band captures perfectly the hues and timbres of Mitchell’s mid-Seventies The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Mitchell was one of her favorite people of the traveling troupe and as she told me, “the feminine part of it I related to most.”
Rivera still marvels at the scene in the film where Mitchell performs “Coyote” for Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. “That could have been a record. She played it perfectly.”
Rivera had the opportunity to play “Coyote” at a 75th birthday party for the singer in Los Angeles in late 2019. Rivera accompanied artists such as Glen Hansard, Rufus Wainwright and Emmylou Harris, the latter of whom helped define the vocal sound of Desire. With each song, one of Mitchell’s paintings was brought onstage.
A year ago she read the lyrics of “Songbird” to Mitchell. She was very moved, particularly by Rivera’s capture of her life as a painter. Rivera has been visiting Mitchell for years and marvels at her stunning memory of things. She speaks of the singer’s recovery from a long illness as getting better all the time.
These days Rivera wonders when she will get back to touring. She worries about the small clubs in her adopted Los Angeles like McCabe’s Guitar Shop that have supported she and friends like Albert Lee and Sylvia Tyson over the years. Rivera has been playing regularly with Eric Anderson the last few years.his song “When Everything Changed” was written twenty years ago but sums up life during quarantine.
In the Martin Scorcese film, you can catch a glimpse of a younger Anderson at Gerdes Folk City on the night the Rolling Thunder Revue tour may have been set in motion. Anderson didn’t make it but Rivera did.
In a story as written in the book On The Road With Bob Dylan, writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman captures the night Dylan first performed “Sara” in front of his then wife with everyone standing speechless when it was over. The mention of it prompts Rivera to remember how“One More Cup of Coffee” was like that as it turned out to be a one-take song, “It was just so riveting and powerful—and mysterious.”
Rivera told me that the realization of it all didn’t hit her right away. Only a few years later did she realize that she had replaced Eric Clapton’s tracks on the songs that were previously recorded in a full band ensemble. for the past year, we’ve been deciphering film footage of a time that seems almost mythical and a film that captures the unique chemistry between the two as their eyes follow each other.
There’s a telling quote in the film about the forces that draw people together. “The future already exists .It’s just a matter of tuning into it.” If the events of yesteryear can’t quite be fully explained, the mystery of them endures and continues to draw us back to them.
And as Rivera shares her voice –right here, right now to borrow a phrase–this lifelong activist and newfound singer is prone to remind us that, in her words, we are not separate but connected. In 2020 her simple message sounds more pertinent than ever. “We can show the best of our humanity when we pull together for the greater good.”