MONTOURSVILLE — When The Badlees performed their 1993 single "Laugh to Keep From Cryin'" in the Montoursville High School gymnasium Tuesday evening, the lyrics seemed to take on special meaning.
"Well, the sun she came a-risin', so strong and proud, took one look down upon this town and hid behind the clouds."
The small central Pennsylvania town — devastated last July when 16 of its high school students and five adults were killed in the TWA Flight 800 explosion — has surely shared far more tears than laughs since that tragic evening.
But on Tuesday — strolling the corridors of the small school that became the focus of the entire nation three months ago — one could sense a resurgence of strength, and a school spirit that's been inspired by events much deeper than any homecoming pep rally or bonfire.
Montoursville, once knocked out cold, is slowly getting back up. And The Badlees, one of the best bands ever to come from these parts, were there to help celebrate. The special "Thank You" concert, members of the group said, was done in appreciation for the tight-knit community's undying spirit and for the support people showed one another in time of need.
"We feel better about doing this show than 95 percent of the other shows we do," said Badlees drummer Ron Simasek prior to the concert. "At least it's taking people's mind off some other things. We'll try to lift some spirits and do some of the things that music was created for."
Guitarist and chief songwriter Bret Alexander, a native of nearby Canton, said the TWA crash hit close to home in several ways.
"I didn't grow up too far from here," Alexander said. "When I was in high school, I went on basically the identical trip as these kids did. I was in the foreign language club and we went to France and Spain and Madrid ... a TWA flight out of JFK. It was one of my fondest memories from high school, and I'm sure they were planning on the same thing."
Alexander said the band was on tour when they heard of the crash, but that their thoughts immediately turned toward home. They soon offered to help in any way asked.
"We try to do a lot of charity work, but when something like that hits close to home, you can put a face with it," he said. "What we'll do today isn't really that much. We just come up and play a show like we do all the time, but maybe it can mean something to somebody."
The school gym was full of young teens who came to enjoy the music, and all seemed appreciative of The Badlees' free performance.
Jen Weigle, 15, a sophomore who knew several of the crash victims, said she was glad The Badlees were there.
"They don't have to do this," she said. "It seems like they just want to. It makes some people feel better."
Amber Miller, 14, also a sophomore, said morale in Montoursville has improved since earlier in the year, and that the topic of the crash is now easier to deal with.
"We're a little more open about it now," she said. "It used to be a hush-hush thing. Now, we talk about it a little more."
Kelly Missud, 17, a senior and big Badlees' fan, lost six friends in the crash. She also said things were improving at the school.
"It's definitely better," she said. "We miss our friends ... but things are getting back to normal, and that's what we really need."
Ray Huff, assistant principal, helped organize the concert with several Williamsport radio stations and WKRZ-FM. He said the show was originally planned as a benefit to aid a special family relief and scholarship fund, but that proved to be unnecessary due to prior donations. Huff said students' attention now seemed focused on academics and typical high school events, and that a free "Thank You" concert soon became the plan.
"We decided the best thing to do was just have something free and give the community the chance to celebrate getting on with things," he said. "It's good to see the kids smiling for a change ... When you've had 21 funerals in two weeks, that's more than you can ever ask kids to go through."
Pete Palladino, lead singer of the band, said it was easy to understand the dark mood at the school earlier this year, but that he hoped the show would help brighten spirits.
"It's nice to know that people would even want to come see us to take their mind off things for a little while," he said. "I think that's what tonight is really all about — to kind of unwind and let loose just a little bit."
Bassist Paul Smith hoped the location of the show might help remove some of the psychological scars associated with the room.
"The gym was actually used as a funeral home for viewings," Smith said, obviously still disturbed by the thought of July's events. "They want to give it a different feel and just have an evening of levity and fun. We're just glad that we could help out in any way."
Badlees guitarist Jeff Feltenberger, who said the band spent some of the afternoon talking with students, parents and teachers, also felt the community was on its way back.
"It's seems like they have a pretty good grasp on the situation," he said. "Through the counseling and everything, it seems like people are responding well."
On Tuesday night, they responded to "Gwendolyn" and "Diamonds in the Coal" and "The Next Big Thing" and every bit of The Badlees' inspired 90-minute show. And when the band closed its set with the radio smash, "Angeline Is Coming Home," they rushed toward the stage and sang together and clapped together and danced together — and, most important, they laughed together.
Laugh to keep from crying?
But they — wouldn't you agree? — have already cried enough.