"There's nothing like the five," an obviously very excited Badlees fan said as he watched the band perform at a recent show. "There is nothing like seeing those five guys on stage together."
Unfortunately for the group's many Pennsylvania fans, seeing "the five" renowned musicians perform as one unit has been pretty rare in recent years.
The Badlees, perhaps the Keystone State's most critically acclaimed band, spent most of the past three years developing side projects, releasing solo albums and, on some occasions, bickering with one another.
In 2001, vocalist Pete Palladino released his first solo album, while guitarist Bret Alexander, bassist Paul Smith and drummer Ron Simasek unveiled the first album by The Cellarbirds. Guitarist Jeff Feltenberger branched off with Echotown. Through it all, they all admit, there was so much tension within the group it nearly disbanded.
Earlier this week, however, the band released "Renew," its first album since 1999's "Amazing Grace" and "Up There Down Here." The CD showcases the work of Palladino, Alexander, Smith, Simasek and Feltenberger, or, as Palladino now likes to joke on stage, "all original members." And, during a recent interview with the five musicians, there was a sense of a band on the mend.
Huddled in a backstage room just before a concert near Harrisburg, the group's members cracked jokes, threw a few soft zingers at one another and talked passionately and thoughtfully about music. The side projects, they say, were fun and creatively fulfilling, and they will continue. But, for now, the focus is back on The Badlees.
"I think that while we were all enjoying what we were doing, everybody kind of came to the realization that what we have is really special," Palladino says. "We all still love doing what we do in this format."
The Badlees, though never true pop superstars, are one of the most successful bands ever to emerge from Central/Northeast Pennsylvania. The group has sold nearly a quarter of a million albums, mostly due to 1995's "River Songs," and has earned two national recording contracts. Two of the band's songs, "Angeline Is Coming Home" and "Fear of Falling," hit the national Top 10.
There was also a trip to China, a constant dose of critical acclaim and several road jaunts across America. The band's big-label video for "Angeline" made national news, appeared on VH1, was directed by "ER's" Anthony Edwards and starred Emmy-winning actress Julianna Margulies. The group also did national tours with Bob Seger and Gregg Allman and once shared the stage with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
In 1998, however, just as the band was set to release its follow-up to "River Songs," it, like hundreds of other young bands, became tangled in the mammoth Polygram/Seagram sale. With no action or commitment from its record label for more than a year, much of the momentum the band had developed as an independent act was lost. Ultimately, discontent and turmoil crept into the ranks of the group itself.
By early 2000, some of the group's members were hardly on speaking terms, and live shows became few and far between. They explored other musical projects, Alexander and Smith opened their own recording studio mdash; Saturation Acres in Danville mdash; and, for the first time, the band even aired some of its creative differences in the press. Today, The Badlees admit the trying situation with the major labels mdash; of which they are now free mdash; may have been the main reason for much of their strife.
"Ninety percent of all frustration that was felt had very little to do with anybody in this room," Palladino says. "You're put under such stress, and we were put through the wringer, and it just takes its toll on everybody. And at the time we took a break, we needed to take a break. But there's a reason we never called it quits, and I think if we all had enough of each other, we probably would have."
Simasek, who played on all three side projects and always seemed oblivious to any creative tension or turmoil, offers his usual deadpan analysis.
"I just like to hit things," says the laid-back drummer. "I try to hit things in time. That's my whole life. Be it jazz, folk, country or whatever ... if I hit it in time, everybody's happy."
Simasek is now happily hitting the skins again for The Badlees. He and the others say the decision for the band to record together again was made last fall, and that what the group discovered when it hit the studio was that the side projects had made it a better and more focused unit.
"I think having both outlets is really beneficial to the band," Palladino says. "Any time you're able to express that creative muscle in a different way is a good thing. A friend of mine was listening to some of the new stuff, and he said, 'You know, I can honestly hear influences from each of the side projects in the new Badlees material.' I thought that was really interesting. And he's right."
Most of the songs on "Renew" were written solely by Alexander. Tracks include the soaring title track, the thoughtful "Done For Love" and the gorgeous "Too Many Changes." Guitarist Feltenberger says that when the band did reconverge at Saturation Acres earlier this year to begin work on the album, any still-lingering bad blood was quickly washed away by the sheer quality of the material.
"It was really amazing to hear those songs for the first time and just experience their beauty," he says. "The songs are always the difference between any band that's ever made it or done anything, and that's the difference in our band. We have some different pieces to the puzzle — Pete's a great frontman and can go out there and sell it every night — but these are just really heavy, crushing songs.
"It was overwhelming."
"Fifteen minutes into playing — and actually 'Renew' was the first song that we learned for this record — it was like this giant air had lifted," Palladino adds. "I think everybody at that point had just let it all go. All of those hang-ups and baggage that we carried around from all of those years were let go, and we just accepted each other. And it was a great feeling."
Alexander admits that in recent years, he's sometimes felt stymied in writing for The Badlees. He says he often wanted to guide the band in new directions yet also was aware that lots of people liked it just way it was. One track on the new CD, "See Me As A Picture," even talks about the problem in open terms. Ultimately, however, he decided to simply write the best Badlees record he could, with the strengths of all five musicians in mind.
Interesting enough, Alexander says that when it came to the lyrics, he often found himself writing words aimed at the band itself. Several songs on "Renew," he says, do in some ways serve as reclamation and rededication of the group. Sometimes, they sound like a peace offering.
"That's certainly the feeling," he says. "Whether it be your buddies, your friends, your wife, your husband or whoever, you get to that point. We were going to make another record, and it was well known that people weren't getting along. I thought there were so many stories to that, but what better story than 'Hey, I accept everybody for what they are.'
"There's a line in 'Renew' that says 'Love is not about waiting. It's a decision.' The sky isn't going to open up. You decide."
As Alexander intended, all of The Badlees' individual strengths are showcased throughout the CD. Palladino's vocals are strong, rich and textured, and there is eclectic musicianship, crafty songwriting, glossy harmonies and an unwavering sense of artistic integrity. His bandmates appreciated his efforts and ability to harness their talents.
"The vibe I got from these songs is that Bret really had the abilities, limitations and strong points of this band in mind, and that's a credit to him," Feltenberger says. "That's why this record sounds the way it does."
"I think we're all a lot happier now," Palladino adds. "We're not trying to force this square peg through the round hole and try to make it something it's not."
Buzz on the band
Chris Fetchko, 27, is The Badlees' new manager. The Hazleton native, who also works at Capitol Records in New York City, says he became a fan of the group a few years ago, and when he decided he wanted to get involved in management, The Badlees were his first and only choice. The band says his enthusiasm and passion for its music also was an important factor in persuading them to record together again.
WHAT: The Badlees "Renew and Rewind" concert. The show will
be taped for a WB/FOX TV special, which will air throughout
Pennsylvania on July 21.
WHERE: The Hammerstein Ballroom, 311 W. 34th St., New York City.
WHEN: 7 p.m. June 22. Opening acts and special guests TBA. The
Badlees perform about 8:30 p.m.
TICKETS: $20. There is also a bus trip leaving from Wilkes-Barre.
Cost is $45 and includes transportation, a ticket to the show and $5
off a limited-edition "Renew and Rewind" T-shirt.
"All I want is for The Badlees to have their chance, and that's my mission," Fetchko says. "I'm only going to do music I believe in, and the bottom line is that the Badlees are my favorite band on this planet. I wake up every day, and I run to my desk to push this band."
Fetchko says since the conclusion of the "Renew" sessions, he sees a new, yet old and familiar, sparkle in group members' eyes.
"This record has been done right," Fetchko says. "If you talk to any of the five guys, they'll tell you that this record has been done on their terms, and that's what's so great about it. Whether it sells a million copies or two copies, it took The Badlees back to what they were when they first formed, which was simply 'We're going to make good music, put it out there and hope that people like it.' It's not about labels; it's not about money. This is just, 'Hey, here's a record.' That's it."
Alexander and Smith say that working with other artists at Saturation Acres has strengthened The Badlees as well. Two artists they produced already have been signed to national record deals, and they say such experiences have helped them expand as musicians, arrangers and producers.
"There's actually been a lot of people that have come in and kind of 'given it up' to us a little bit, and sometimes a lot," Smith says. "And that's the most fun, because you just go and do what you think sounds good. So we've had three years of little experiments to grow from."
"Every artist has an 'essence' that makes them special, and with every one, their essence is different, and that's what you try to bring out," Alexander adds. "So when it came time to write and record our record, you try to bring that same essence out."
So far, people seem to like what they're hearing. One track, "Hindsightseeing," is already in heavy rotation at two stations in Harrisburg and is a top-three request in Pottsville. In addition, nearly 1,000 fans already have requested tickets for the band's upcoming "Renew and Rewind" concert in New York, which will be on June 22 and air throughout Pennsylvania on network TV on July 21.
Jerry Padden, program director at 98.5 KRZ-FM, says the phones have been lighting up for "Renew" and that KRZ was the first Top 40 station in the United States to report adding the track to its regular rotation. "The fans have been extremely positive," Padden says. "They love it. The song just sounds fabulous."
The band is equally enthusiastic.
"Personally, I missed being on stage with the other four guys and working on songs and making records with them," Palladino says. "I feel like all of a sudden we've got that car running again, and it's still got a lot of miles in it. If we didn't believe in what we were doing, and what we do collectively, we wouldn't be here. We all really believe in what each of us brings to this table, and we're excited about it."