"Tell everybody The Badlees are alive and well," said guitarist Bret Alexander back in February.
"The band is fine," said vocalist Pete Palladino in a separate conversation A few weeks later.
Both were talking about side-projects the group's members were beginning to explore at the time. Bret was branching out with The Cellarbirds, an eclectic trio consisting a fellow Badlees Paul Smith and Ron Simasek, while Pete was talking about some of his upcoming solo shows.
Still, both made a point to emphasize that all was fine in The Badlees' camp, and a few weeks later — with The Badlees making the group's first area appearance of the year — I headed down to Hazleton to find out for myself. I wanted to see if all was really well with the group I once hailed as "Pennsylvania's best and most entertaining band."
The following week, I caught the group's show at Jitterbugs in Edwardsville. And two weeks ago, I took in the band's show at the WVIA studios in Jenkins Township.
And for the first time in more than two years, I've been inspired to comment on the group based on its performances, rather than its accomplishments.
But before we get to that, let me say this: I freely admit being a big fan of this group and have thoroughly enjoyed writing about its music and progress in this newspaper over the past five years. And watching its members' sense of conviction and the passion with which they performed in the spring of 1995 — on their way to a national recording contract — was and has been, without question, the highlight of my entire career as a music journalist.
Still, my deep respect for their music — and the subsequent friendships I've developed with them — have never clouded my objectivity.
The Badlees did not always perform well last year. The energy was down and the sense of focus was missing. The Kirby show in February of '97 should have been a triumph, but the Mere Mortals performed better. The band members have admitted they were burnt out by the end of '96 from nearly two straight years on the road. And Palladino has told me the rocky road his personal life, with the ending of a serious relationship, affected his confidence and some of his performances.
Thus, at all of these recent shows, I was curious to see what would happen on stage. Was everything really "fine?" Could The Badlees — the best live act I've ever seen come through these clubs — still hit a room with the same fervor with which they once did?
Three songs into the set at that first show in Hazleton, I saw the answer was "yes."
The set-lists have offered selections from every Badlees' album, and newer songs such as "Thinking In Ways," "Running Up That Hill" "Silly Little Man" and "Luther's Windows" have sounded marvelous.
A few choice covers of songs by Tom Waits, The Beatles and The Band have been outstanding, and the group's rendition of "The Weight" — with members trading off on vocals — and "Rain" have been the best, most inspired covers I've ever heard.
Alexander has played banjo, mandolin, some bluesy guitar licks and has delivered a hilarious spoken-medley of classic rock songs that ranks right up there with any zany Badlees antic of the past.
The Cellarbirds project apparently has strengthened the rhythm section of Simasek and Smith, and the importance of guitarist Jeff Feltenberger's harmonies and backing vocals — after seeing members perform without him in recent months — has never been more apparent. The Feltenberger-penned "34 Winters" has been one of the highlights at each show.
The big difference, however — in Hazleton and at all of these recent concerts — has been Palladino. If it was Palladino who took most of the heat for some of last year's lackluster performances, then it's also Palladino who deserves much of the credit for the band's on-stage revival.
He has never sung better. His solo performances seem to have improved his sense of worth, and he is again holding the mic-stand with confidence and singing with passion and conviction. He banters with the crowd, twirls his mike cord overhead and has performed with charisma and emotion.
And while Palladino, now 30, has pulled back on stage from years past and no longer appears to be fueled by pure instinct and energy, he is maturing and developing as a frontman. There's more care and perhaps even more thought to his onstage antics, but it appears to be coming from a sense of growth. It's not The Badlees we saw from 1992-96, but it's not the "lost" band we saw a few times in 1997.
(And if you're one of those who think Pete still needs to hang upside over the drum kit, or that The Badlees need to sing "Kumbaya" at every show, you never really understood the band anyway.)
What Palladino needs to realize — and what he appears to be rediscovering — is what I've told him to his face and now I'm putting in print. Although he admires contemporary artists such as Adam Duritz and Jakob Dylan — as do I — he's a better singer and a better live entertainer than they'll ever be. Palladino — when he's on and focused — is as good as anybody that's ever hit a concert stage.
I've always given it straight to The Badlees. I've told them I think they're the best damn rock 'n' roll band to emerge in this entire decade, but I've also told Pete he should toss the lyric-stand he sometimes uses, and when they've screwed off too much on stage. I told them I didn't care for their video for "Angeline Is Coming Home," what people are saying in the streets and in the clubs, and I've told Bret which new songs I love, and even I few I dislike.
In recent months, I've liked just about everything. These have been the best shows from the group since the fall of '96 at The Bud Light Amphitheatre, and I've left each one feeling invigorated, entertained and enlightened. To quote one of their most famous songs, I felt The Badlees were finally "coming home."
Am I still championing this band?
Bret Alexander and Mike Naydock — both residents of our own Luzerne County — are the two most gifted songwriters I've ever met. Some rock critics like to use the words "most important" when they're writing about new artists or albums. I'll join them on this one. Alexander — still the soul and conscious of The Badlees — is America's most important young songwriter. Naydock too. When you hear some of the material from this new record, you'll even further understand what I mean.
This column is often about great music and great performances.
At all of these recent shows, the great Badlees' vibe — although somewhat different — was back.
That's why they're here again today.
That's why they've been here more than anyone.