— by David James
“The combined forces of myself and the Harlem Gospel Travelers are something to be reckoned with,” Eli Paperboy Reed said about the show the two acts have prepared for their appearance at Hering Auditorium Friday night. “Expect a good time.”
Reed, a wildly popular artist on the neo-soul circuit, has spent 20 years taking the basic elements of postwar blues and ’60s and ’70 soul, blending them with other styles, including country music, and creating a sound deeply rooted in American musical soil. He takes a fresh approach that builds and expands on those traditions rather than simply reviving them.
“I’m not interested in recreating anything,” Reed explained. “There are influences that I have and I love, and I certainly don’t try to hide them.”
However, he added, “I feel that people can identify the music that I make as my own now, and that means a lot.”
Originally from the Boston area, Reed moved after high school to Mississippi, where he played music, absorbing the blues and other styles that first germinated deep in the South over a century ago. Next he headed to Chicago to attend college, where he played in clubs and churches in the South Side, adding gospel music to his palette.
“I’ve loved gospel music for most of my musical life,” Reed said.
It’s this love that led him into playing a key role in the formation of the act that will open the show. About a decade ago, Reed explained, he learned about a program called Gospel for Teens in Harlem that was teaching the gospel tradition to at-risk youth. Reed offered to teach a course on quartet music, and met the founding members of the future Harlem Gospel Travelers in his class.
“Ifedayo Gatling was 13,” Reed recalled, “And George Marage was 15 or 16.”
Similar to Reed, the Harlem Gospel Travelers look to the past for inspiration, but view themselves as furthering a living tradition, not simply imitating what came before.
“We have taken the inspiration of the quartet sound, and the old gospel soul funk sound, and are bringing it into the 21st century,” Gatling explained, adding that the group puts those sounds “through different lenses of genres and music and viewpoint to allow people to experience this music in ways that they never thought.”
Reed said that when he first met the young Gatling and Marage in the class he led, “I was so blown away by their talent that I felt like it would be a shame if we didn’t at least try to capture what we were doing there. And that was the first recordings of the Harlem Gospel Travelers, and that has blossomed into them being a full-fledged group.”
The duo has since been joined by Dennis Bailey, who adds an additional voice to the mix. Gatling said the band members, now adults, remain close to Reed, and are looking forward to sharing the stage with him in Fairbanks.
“We love working with him, and that’s why we’re doing these joint shows. So we can show the power of having us together. He’s been a great mentor to us over the years,” they said, adding that audiences will get to see “us do what we do. You get to see him do what he does. And you get to see us together and that dynamic of family and being powerhouses who love music and love performing.”
The show will begin with the Travelers, who will be joined by Reed as their set reaches its conclusion. Then Reed will perform his show. It will include selections from his latest album, “Hits and Misses,” which gathers together stray tracks including old B-sides, bonus songs, and covers ranging from Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” to the perennial Motorhead cruncher “Ace of Spades,” which Reed transforms into a driving funk number that will have the audience on its feet. He’ll also be drawing from “Down Every Road,” his 2022 tribute to country legend Merle Haggard, in which he filtered Haggard’s timeless songwriting through a soul lens.
“It’s been a dream of mine for many years to do that record,” Reed said, adding that it led to an opportunity for him to play at the Grand Ole Opry.
The show will conclude with Reed and the Travelers on stage together yet again.
“The encore is something to behold,” Gatling promised, adding that both acts will be “sharing our message of love and positivity, and giving people a night to remember.”
Eli Paperboy Reed & the Harlem Gospel Travelers will perform at Hering Auditorium Friday, Oct. 20, at 7:30 p.m. in Hering Auditorium. Individual and subscription tickets can be bought at www.fairbanksconcert.org or by calling 907-474-8081. Tickets will also be available at the lobby box office starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday. FCA’s office is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday in the Artisans Courtyard, 1755 Westwood Way.
David James is a freelance writer based in Fairbanks.