Dylanesque: Scarlet Rivera’s debut album

By Aaron Galbraith and Tony Attwood

This series looks at performances of songs that were not written by Dylan but which clearly have a Dylan influence within them.  As ever, Aaron selects the theme and the works, and Tony endeavours to write something moderately relevant while listening to the selections.

Aaron: Let’s look at another one of the albums that spun out of the Rolling Thunder Revue. This time it is Scarlet Rivera’s self-titled debut. The band included Rolling Thunder Drummer Gary Burke.

Wikipedia tells us that Bob Dylan is said to have discovered Rivera before the rehearsal for his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. While being driven in his limousine around the Village, Dylan spotted Rivera walking with her violin case. Dylan stopped to converse with Rivera and invited her to his rehearsal studio where she spent the afternoon playing along with several of his new songs. “If I had crossed the street seconds earlier,” said Rivera in 2012, “it never would have happened.” After a session with her, Dylan invited Rivera to play on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour. She played an important role in Dylan’s studio album Desire.

In 1977, Rivera released her self-titled debut LP for Warner Brothers Records. Lindsay Planer from AllMusic praised the album, saying that Rivera “has consistently found specific and viable places for the violin in rock”.

Here are some of the tracks from the album, let’s see what Tony makes of these…


Tony: I am an absolute sucker for the complex rhythmic changes that we hear in this – my old friend, the sudden move to 7/4,  pops up here along with so many other variations I couldn’t take them all in.   And the lady is a stunning violinist.  But more than anything I would love to know how this recording was made; there are so many changes of structure as well as time, I can’t imagine that it was performed without the music in front of the artists unless it was a series of separate recordings that were carefully edited together.

But then again maybe there is a deeper structure in the piece which as I’ve only heard it once, I can’t fathom.  If that is the case then, as with a violinist playing (for example) Bartok’s second violin concerto, the key to it is that the piece is a set of variations on a theme, and that is perfectly learnable by the violinist.  Just in case you have a spare 40 minutes and a mind to hear another wonderful violinist, here it is (but listening is not a pre-requisite for reading the rest of my rambling.  Come back to it another time).

Gypsy Caravan

Tony: Now here at once we do have a structure but it does seem to me rather jumpy – I do appreciate that the caravan “goes around the world” and things do suddenly happen, but the caravan travels at a sedate pace.  And maybe I am getting to the heart of my problem with this: perhaps I am too hooked on structure.  (And/or getting too old).

There is of course a long-established structure in music known as “through composed” which is the opposite of a totally structured piece of music (usually a song), and which has no chorus, and varies throughout.  This is what we have here I think (but I have heard this only once so I may be mistaken and maybe there is a structure.  Although it that case I have to admit it is lost on me.)

In a sense I get a feeling of a film score perhaps written to accompany a movie in which there is no dialogue, only action.  But this is not to say I am not enjoying this.  There is, for example, a change of pace at just on seven minutes which has a wonderful dramatic effect.

Perhaps the problem is that there is so much to take in here and to understand that without someone else’s commentary to guide me, I am struggling to take everything in.  For example consider what is happening around 8 minutes 50 seconds, and then at nine minutes 20.  I feel I am being taken on a journey akin to someone taking lots of scenes from different movies and pasting them together.   However the taking of that theme around a descending bass and then speeding it up over and over appears a bit like a trick to show off the artist’s amazing ability as a violinist, but not to deliver a meaningful piece of music.

Cloak and Dagger

Tony: Of course these rambles are just my immediate perceptions of the music written as I hear the pieces – in this case for the first time.  And it reminds me that I never appreciate virtuoso performances undertaken just to show off how good the instrumentalist is.  I feel the same about rock music where the lead guitarist is allowed to play for several minutes getting more and more frantic.   Yes we might witness an amazing technique, but I am left asking, “for what end?”   I’m also reminded of watching a footballer (as in “soccer”) who can dribble with the ball and beat the defenders inside out.  But if it doesn’t end up with a goal, or at least a significant goal chance, the question remains, “to what end?”

But this final example Jochen has given us is different.  It has a clear and interesting structure based on 6/4 time – which is unusual in itself.  However just after the four-minute mark it goes somewhere completely different and again I simply don’t understand how this relates to what has gone before.  It is, for me (and as ever this is just my response) like a second piece of music has but stuck onto the first.  And as it happens, I rather like the first piece, but not the second.

Of course, this is a staggering musical talent of which I am completely in awe.  And I don’t know why structure in music is so important to me, but obviously, it is.  Which is perhaps why I like Dylan’s compositions so much.  If nothing else, we always have a structure.

And so it does make me wonder if I am obsessed by structure – it would seem in terms of how I have chosen to publish the Untold Dylan site I am, grouping the articles into series as I do on the home page, and having an original aim (to review each and every Bob Dylan composition – which we achieved).

But then this is what working in the creative arts does for a person.  It makes one look within, and (sometimes) contemplate what is there.  For me it seems I want organization.  Scarlett Rivera described her album “all of me” as a “self-portrait of the winding road of my life journey,” and that I think is the issue.   I do like winding roads and meanders, and I love the five mile walks I go on each week, with the Ramblers group across fields and footpaths I have never visited before.  But within those I find a structure (not least in that we do come back to where we started so we can get back in our cars and go home – after a visit to a local hostelry).  Ms Rivera however is on a journey that seems to have no repeats, no returns…. and that is obviously great for her.  But doesn’t quite fit with me.   And I am sure the loss is all mine.

One comment

  1. Maybe it’s the influence of Aaron’s selections but this track has a very Dylan-style feel to it for me, in all its delightful unevenness – but still without a clear roadmap of where I find myself as the piece continues.  Nevertheless I think it’s great, engaging and well worth giving it a listen or two.

    Thanks so much, Aaron and Tony, for a great exploration of this album. Your selections make for a fascinating journey – it’s clear that Scarlet Rivera has found a way to tap into the spirit of Bob Dylan in her work. I love the way it sounds – sometimes exciting, sometimes intimate, but always captivating!

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