When The Badlees return to Northeast Pennsylvania tonight for a special performance at the Bud Light Amphitheater, certain things will be the same as always.
Pete Palladino will be singing, Bret Alexander will be playing mandolins and guitars and Jeff Feltenberger will be supplying rhythm guitar and booming backing vocals. Paul Smith's bass-lines will thump and thunder along to the sound of Ron Simasek's back beat, and the music — as usual — will be wonderful.
But as the nights grow cooler and the days become shorter, winds of change are also in the air for The Badlees. The "River Songs" tour, which began over 18 months ago, is drawing to a close, and the band, which once gigged in the Wilkes-Barre area several times each month, is returning for its first full concert since April.
Also making tonight's show special is the fact that the under-21 crowd — which has certainly bought lots of Badlees records over the past year — will finally be able to attend one of the band's live shows.
Throw in the fact that the group has spent most of the past year touring clubs throughout the country, has shared the stage with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, the Allman Brothers and Bob Seger, and has seen its singles for "Fear of Falling" and "Angeline Is Coming Home" climb the national radio charts, and what you've got is a very special homecoming.
"The country's so big — especially when you're seeing it from the back of a van," says Palladino, calling from Pittsburgh and explaining how the band tried to hit every market imaginable on the long, bending "River Songs" tour. "It wasn't a conscious thing to stay away for this long."
Like all groups touring nationally for the first time, Palladino says certain parts of the country embraced The Badlees more than others. St. Louis, he says, was particularly strong, as well as parts of Texas and California. He says that radio play in the market usually determined the size of the crowd, and that the band performed a sold-out show at the Troubadour, one of Los Angeles' most famous clubs.
Palladino says it's the ripple effect — friends telling friends about the band — that can have the greatest impact on a group's success.
"Word-of-mouth is definitely, by all means, the best way for a band to amass following," he says. "That's what we did in Pennsylvania. It's a little harder to do it out there as far as the whole country is concerned. You can't really pound the area as often as you'd like.
"You'll find you have great markets across the country, and you'll find you'll have markets that no matter how many times you've gone back and played and pounded them over the head, nobody seems to care." He laughs.
Still, the past year has indicated that lots of people do care about The Badlees. "River Songs" has sold over 100,000 units, and "Fear of Falling," the first national single, hit No. 6 on the Radio & Records national rock chart. "Angeline Is Coming Home," the catchy, breezy, pop hit that first became a regional smash in early 1995, also spent most of the summer of 1996 climbing the national charts, peaking at No. 18 on the Radio & Records Top-40 and at No. 6 on the national rock chart. In addition, the video for the song was featured regularly on VH1's "Crossroads" program, a show that features clips from up-and-coming artists.
Palladino says that chiseling a niche in rock's national plateau hasn't overwhelmed the band.
"I don't know if it's ever going to hit us because we're so disconnected from it," he says. "I don't think it will hit us until we get off the road and things die down a little bit. Then, we'll be able to look back and see how well we did. Right now, we have no idea. People tell us we're doing very well."
"I think if one day we were playing at Jitterbugs on an open-mike night, and then a week later we were touring with Gregg Allman or Bob Seger or being played on VH1 — that might have had a greater effect. But for us it's been such a slow build — the way we always wanted it — that it's been a lot easier to digest."
Throughout the conversation, Palladino's words showed a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, combined with sentiments of jaded wisdom and pessimism regarding the music business. It has, after all, been nearly two years since "River Songs" was recorded, and nearly a year since it hit record stores across America. The 18 months of trekking across the nation and working with a major record label appear to have served as an eye-opener for The Badlees.
"The mystery of how this whole thing works is gone for us," says Palladino. "Anybody can get on radio. It's all promotion and marketing. That's just the way it works. I'd love to say it's governed by music, but that has little to do with it ... that's been one of the biggest letdowns for us.
We've found so many people that are great artists and great songwriters that can't get their stuff on the radio and can't sell records."
In another candid revelation, Palladino says the band is not entirely pleased with the video for "Angeline Is Coming Home," which was directed by "ER" star Anthony Edwards and featured Emmy Award-winning actress Julianna Margulies. The band, he says, has actually nicknamed the clip the "Very Expensive Mistake," and says that seeing the video on VH1 for the first time was an "almost empty victory."
"The hotel we were staying at didn't have cable," he says, recalling the night of the video's premiere. "You know, we stay at only the best (laughs). ... So we wandered over to this bar to watch the 'Crossroads' program because we knew it was going to be on. ... 'Angeline' came flying by, and it was funny, because I couldn't separate watching it there in the bar on VH1 from watching the rough cuts of it, from seeing all the mistakes, from wanting to change things... We're so jaded anymore, nothing really impresses us.
"If it was a video that we really liked and were really proud of, it would have been a different feeling," he adds. "A couple of people at the bar looked at the TV then looked at me, then looked at the TV and looked at me — they figured out that it was me and bought me a beer. That was about the best feeling."
One thing Palladino says The Badlees still feel very strongly about is its relationship with their label, Polydor/Atlas Records. The label, he says, has remained committed to the band, and has recently released "Gwendolyn" as the third single of "River Songs." The label had even offered to go to a fourth single, but the band — admittedly a bit burned out from continuous touring — opted to come off the road in December, regroup, and begin working on a new album.
"We were incredibly lucky to do what we did on this first record," he says. "It's far surpassed our expectations... The fact that we were able to go out there and turn people on to what we're doing — it's the perfect setup for the next record."
"We're just going to need a little time just to come home and regroup and learn how to enjoy music again."
Tonight, Palladino says the group will enjoy being home, tucked between the friendly confines of the Appalachian mountains that first embraced the band. He admits that playing to the new younger faces is an exciting prospect, and adds that returning to play in familiar territory also allows the group to expand its set-list to include songs from their previously released independent albums — "Diamonds in the Coal" and "The Unfortunate Result of Spare Time" — plus rework old favorites and showcase new material.
"We've been touring on this record for quite a while now," he says. "Now that we've set a time limitation on touring, it's given us light at the end of the tunnel. We're starting to enjoy things a bit more."
"I'm incredibly excited to play. It's always great to come home."