The concept is an excellent one: conversation and concert with a veteran music figure. An interview to get the back story and a post-interview performance on the same, intimate stage.
Going up against the Vikings opener wasn’t the best timing but curator/interviewer Paul Metsa proved to be a knowledgable, engaging and nimble interrogator of violinist Scarlet Rivera at the first Blue Thursdays installment at the newly reopened and acoustically impressive but sparsely filled Music Box Theatre on Thursday.
He got the background before he got the big payoff – Scarlet’s legendary meeting with Bob Dylan on a Greenwich Village street corner. She had massive hair and a fiddle case in her hand. He rolled down the car window and asked if she could play the violin, invited her for a ride and an audition at his loft.
“He played a bunch of songs and asked me to play along,” Rivera explained. “He played me only things that weren’t recorded. He wanted me to have a real test. The things that ended up on ‘Desire.’”
After the afternoon audition, Dylan invited Rivera to go see "a friend" of his perform that night: Muddy Waters at the Bottom Line club. “After the second song [with Muddy], he announced that I was hired by saying ‘I want my violinist to come up here,’” Rivera recalled.
She jammed with Dylan and Waters and “got the nod from all of Muddy Waters’ guys.” Afterward, Dylan took Rivera to see blues veteran Victoria Spivey and stayed there making music til dawn.
“It was a long day,” she told Metsa. “A very successful day.”
Rivera, who is 60ish and still making Celtic, New Age and world music recordings, told one story about going for a walk with Dylan while on tour and him dressing up in a hoodie and “behaving like a schizophrenic so no one would recognize him.”
Metsa steered the conversation away from Dylan to cover Rivera’s work with jazz giant Ornette Coleman and the Duke Ellington Orchestra (at Carnegie Hall). Dylanologists might have preferred to hear more details about the storied Rolling Thunder Revue Tour of 1975 but Blue Thursdays involve a concert.
Rivera joined Gene LaFond and the Wild Unknown, a local band (LaFond met her on the Rolling Thunder Revue), for an hour-plus of mostly Dylan songs (plus two LaFond tunes and one Rivera Celtic instrumental). Hearing her violin on “Hurricane” – one of Dylan’s most intense recordings – was goosebump-inducing. The closing “All Along the Watchtower” featured a spirited exchange between her violin and Brian Green’s guitar.
They also played obscurities (“Rita Mae”) as well as familiar fare (“Tangled Up in Blue,” “You’re a Big Girl Now” with a wonderful violin ending).
During the concert, Rivera pointed out that she played violin on every song on 1976’s “Desire” album – including the outttakes. “That’s unheard of,” she said.
It was similarly rare to hear Rivera’s passionate classical/gypsy violin seasoning so many Dylan songs in concert.
The next installment of Blue Thursdays at the Music Box is Sept. 16 with Willie West and Willie Walker, two Southern R&B singers who relocated to the Twin Cities.