When singer-songwriter, Eric Andersen, and violinist, Scarlett Rivera play Weber Music Hall in Duluth, Minnesota Saturday night, July 23rd, to benefit the redevelopment of the historic Duluth Armory Building, there is one unifying individual whose spirit brings the three elements together; Bob Dylan. Andersen and Scarlett Rivera were part of Dylan’s rag-tag wandering caravan of music in the mid-70s known as The Rolling Thunder Revue. It came about based on Dylan’s fondness for minstrel show revues and a desire to deflect from the superstardom status that had been crowding him since his 1974 return to the concert stage after a near-decade absence. The Duluth Armory, a historic site in the town of Dylan’s birth, is a luminous setting which has hosted a Who’s Who of American music legends. With these three elements together, the evening of music promises to be a treasure of American music in honor of the wildest of times Andersen and Rivera spent with Bob Dylan in peak creative form.
When Eric Andersen arrived in New York City in 1964, at the invitation of Tom Paxton, who was impressed with his original songs, he fell in with the inner-circle of Greenwich Village songwriters which included Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Fred Neil and Bob Dylan. Over the next year, he gained national fame as a songwriter when his songs, “Thirsty Boots,” “Come to My Bedside” and “Violets of Dawn,” were recorded by popular folk artists like The Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and Judy Collins.
For Scarlet Rivera the event that landed her into the national musical spotlight sounds like a chance encounter that could have ended abruptly with a brush off from her rejecting what seemed like unwanted advances. Dylan was looking for a new sound for the songs that would become his Desire album, when he saw Rivera walking in New York City with her violin case in hand. Dylan asked her from his car if she could play. After rejecting giving Bob her phone number or coming to a session with him, she persuaded him to give her a ride to a session she was to across town. The rest is history. Her violin inhabits and haunts the Desire album on classic songs like “Hurricane,” “Joey”, and “Isis.”
For Dylan, the formation of the Rolling Thunder Revue was something of a professional necessity to try to break out of the fame mold he had been cast in since the 60s. The tour formed through Dylan’s intuition as he completed the Desire album in the fall of 1975. The rehearsals began as jam sessions which would result in Dylan inviting musician friends to drop in; then he would invite them along on the tour. The group became as diverse as Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Mick Ronson-of David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars glam band. They even had their own poet in Allen Ginsburg and scribe in playwright, Sam Shepard along with filmmaker Howard Alk.
For Eric Andersen, the gig with the Rolling Thunder Revue was brief. He appeared at the opening at Gerdes Folk City in New York and at a show at Niagara Falls. In a recent interview with blogger-journalist, Ed Newman, he said,
“ The Gerdes Rolling Thunder “debut” was a ramshackle spontaneous event like performing backstage behind a circus tent.” He then adds, “ I brought Patti Smith along with me as my date.”
But, it was during the early to mid-70s that Andersen would distinguish himself as an artist breaking free of the folk singer label when he became one of the key figures in the singer-songwriter movement with his classic and beautifully poetic album Blue River. Today Andersen continues to write and record albums and play intimate concerts the world over. He has most recently released an EP titled Shadows and Light of Albert Camus. Soon to be released will be Mingle with the Universe: The Worlds of Lord Byron
As Scarlet Rivera toured with Dylan during those Rolling Thunder days, her reputation grew. Later she would begin a solo career and would accompany Tracy Chapman, Keb Mo and The Indigo Girls. She also has released critically acclaimed albums of Celtic music over the last 20 years.
When the Andersen and Rivera came together in Los Angeles last May at McCabe’s Guitar Store in Santa Monica, it was the first time they had played together since the Rolling Thunder Revue. The concert was so well-received, it made the anticipation even stronger for the Duluth show.
The Duluth Armory was built in 1915 to store weapons for use during times of war. It was well-used during World War 11, but the building and the grounds were so skillfully constructed, that it was used on occasion for concerts and entertainment. Notable celebrities like Bob Hope and Johnny Cash played there. But, the old building found itself a part of rock ‘n’ roll legend when, in 1959, Buddy Holly gave a concert as a part of his winter tour, a few days before he was killed in a fatal plane crash with Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. In attendance at the Duluth show was young Robert Zimmerman, aka Bob Dylan, whose fate was sealed for a career in music after seeing Holly. When Dylan received a Grammy in 1998, he said,
“I just want to say that when I was 16 or 17 years old, I went to see Buddy Holly play at Duluth National Guard Armory and I was three feet away from him… and he looked at me. And I just have some kind of feeling that he was – I don’t know how or why – but I know he was with us all the time we were making this record in some kind of way.”
With new concert venues coming to Duluth, the old building has long been threatened with demolition, but with so much history embedded in its walls, there has been a campaign to keep its doors open to the public. It ceased to be an active armory in 1978. But, the building retains a strong sense of history; today, an important part of our national heritage is housed there instead of military arms.
When Eric Andersen and Scarlet Rivera appear at Weber Hall this Saturday, they will be playing music to preserve and restore the historic intersection where Bob Dylan’s life forever changed at one of Buddy Holly’s final concerts, The Duluth Armory. They will also celebrate as they call up memories of a legendary time when Dylan was bringing a rolling thunder of music to America. And they will bring their own certain magic this evening which one privileged audience will be fortunate to experience. As Eric Andersen concluded in a recent interview regarding the magic that is created in this unique live performance:
“It’s something you can’t try and do. You allow or create a space to let the audience come to you to fill the vacuum. Then often a true spell begins. I learned this from listening to old Mississippi blues singers at the Gaslight Café in the Village in the sixties.”