Here is something to do while waiting for the inevitable release of Kanye West’s gospel rap album, Jesus Is King. Check out He’s on Time, the debut album by the mightily talented Harlem Gospel Travelers. Unlike Jesus Is King, He’s on Time is, in fact, on time. It is also well worth your time, whether you believe in Jesus or not, as these are soulful songs that aren’t afraid to rock out on occasion.
He’s on Time is an album with a backstory that reaches back to 2006. Radio personality Vy Higginsen felt that African American children were not being taught about the importance of gospel music as part of their musical heritage and to contemporary music in general. Higginsen opened a music education program, Gospel for Teens, in her family’s Harlem home to spread the gospel about gospel music to New York City-area students.
Gospel for Teens has become an NYC institution, gaining attention for its education and self-development programs on 60 Minutes and The New York Times. By 2013, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, a singer/songwriter and recording artist steeped in the history of R&B and gospel music, had learned about GFT and stopped by to visit Higginsen. Higginsen and Reed shared their mutual love of gospel quartet music, and Reed was soon teaching a class at GFT. The wheels were set in motion for the Harlem Gospel Travelers.
In his class, Reed focused on classic small gospel groups, including the Soul Stirrers, the Swan Silvertones, the Violinaires, and the Swanee Quintet. Students auditioned for Reed and Higginsen, and four were chosen to comprise the Harlem Gospel Travelers: Thomas Gatling, Asher Bethune, Stephen Pedley, and George Marage, all now between 19 and 22 years old.
Which brings us to He’s on Time. The album was produced by Reed, who also plays his signature rhythmic guitar style throughout. Reed is joined by an intimate group of musicians – Jake Leckie on bass, Aaron Frazer on drums, with group member Bethune playing tambourine – while Luke Waldron and Turner Messer add vocals to two songs.
Reed’s production style is both lo-fi and low-key, giving He’s on Time the feel of a great lost gospel record from somewhere back in the 20th century. At the same time, though, the record doesn’t feel self-consciously dated or “retro”. What it does feel like is a great set of gospel tunes, beautifully sung by the Travelers, who receive sympathetic musical backing that rightfully leaves the focus on the vocals, but that is exciting in and of itself. Threads of blues and soul are effortlessly threaded throughout the old school gospel sound of the album.
Each of the Travelers is given room to shine on He’s on Time. Tambourine-playing Asher Bethune sings “Shine on Me”, the oldest song on the record. Bethune prefaces his performance with a moving story of his grandmother singing “Shine on Me”, before launching into a performance that would surely make Grandmother proud.
George Marage contributes three distinctive leads that reveal a great vocal versatility. Marage is equally convincing on the bluesy “Motherless Child” as he is on title track rave-up, on which everybody involved is firing on all cylinders. Seriously, turn the volume way up on “He’s on Time”.
Stephen Pedley gets He’s on Time off to a fiery start with his lead on the opening track, “Oh Yes He Will”. Meanwhile, he also provides high harmony background vocals on the prettiest ballad on the album, “If You Can’t Make It Through a Storm”.
Finally, Thomas Gatling, the youngest member of the group, sings lead on several songs, including two of his compositions, the upbeat “Wash Me, Lord” and the gently questioning, “Am I Doing Enough?”. Gatling also wrote the dynamic title song, with lead vocals by Marage. All of Gatling’s songs fit nicely among the gospel classics to be found on He’s on Time.
Ultimately, each listener will bring their own experience and philosophy to the messages imparted on He’s on Time. But whether you’re listening from a more spiritual or a more secular perspective – or from somewhere in between – it’s difficult to deny the talent of the Harlem Gospel Travelers and the musical transcendence of He’s on Time.
On time, indeed.