The 1965 Newport Folk Festival is best remembered for Bob Dylan’s showdown when he plugged in and performed with an electric band. Where Dylan received a tumultuous reception for mixing electric and acoustic songs, the Rev. Gary Davis won over the festival crowd with his “holy blues,” a successful blend of the sacred and secular.
Live At Newport, originally released in 1967, shows a veteran artist in top form vocally and instrumentally. Recorded nine months before his 70th birthday, Davis sounds like a man following the advice of poet Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night…Old age should rage, rage against the dying of the night.”
Davis, an ordained Baptist minister, delivers a full-throated vocal that any preacher would envy on the biblical tale of “Samson And Delilah”, the opening song and one that would be revived two decades later by the Blasters on their final studio album. For Davis, the stage was just a different form of a pulpit. He could sound like a 20th-century prophet on “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and “You Got To Move”, warning about the mortality of man and the inevitability of dying.
Davis showed off his lighter side on the blues instrumentals “Buck Dance” and “Twelve Sticks”. The songs highlight his skill as an acoustic guitarist who influenced the development of Dylan and Ry Cooder. “Soldiers Drill”, one of two bonus tracks on the CD, shows Davis playing bits of John Philip Sousa marches and military music, highlighting some of his earliest musical influences.
Some of Davis’ material doesn’t hold up as well, notably a lighthearted reference to domestic violence in “She Wouldn’t Say Quit” (“I began to slap her and she wouldn’t say quit”). Overall, Live At Newport is a fine introduction to this minister of the blues and the gospel.