Fast times, turbulent times — exciting times.
Less than a month ago, the popular regional group was still performing to packed houses throughout Northeast and Central Pa.
For the past few weeks, the band's been working clubs throughout the Southwest, playing mostly to crowds who have never seen nor heard them before.
Tomorrow night in Buffalo, N.Y., they'll perform in front of 17,000 people at The Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, opening the show for rock legends Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, once the heart and soul of Led Zeppelin.
"I think everybody on the face of the earth was a fan of Led Zeppelin at one point or another," jokes vocalist Pete Palladino, calling from Dallas, Texas, amid The Badlees' current U.S. tour. "I'm pretty excited to see the show. Who knows if these guys are ever going to tour again?"
It's a big gig, he admits, but adds that the band is simply looking at it as just another step in their career.
"We're not going up there and doing it because we think we're going to win over the entire crowd of 17,000," says Palladino, whose group usually plays clubs to crowds of 500-1,000. "For us, it's similar to the China experience, where you're doing it for the experience alone —for the experience of playing in front of that many people."
(Palladino is referring to the group's August, 1994 trip to China, when the Badlees became one of the few American acts to perform in the communist country.)
It was soon after their return to the U.S. that even bigger things began to happen for the regional favorites.
The year ended with the band topping The Times Leader's "Sound Choice" Readers Poll. In February came the critically acclaimed "River Songs" album, and by late spring throngs of fans from across the region were packing the local clubs as the buzz on the Badlees escalated. The single "Angeline Is Coming Home" became a regional smash, "River Songs" sold more than 10,000 copies, and by mid-summer, several labels had shown an interest in the band.
Finally, on July 18, the group agreed to a national recording contract with Atlas/A&M Records.
"For us —in Pennsylvania ... we kind of hit a wall," says Palladino. "We took the thing as far as we could take it on our own, being an independent band."
'Rising to the occasion'
Currently, the band is playing clubs throughout the Southwest, sometimes sharing the bill with other acts, sometimes co-headlining and sometimes playing alone. The common trait at all the shows is that most of the audiences have never heard of the band before.
Palladino says the difficult task of performing to new, unfamiliar faces is a welcome one.
"It's nice to have a big challenge again," he says. "We were always good at rising to the occasion. Being out here, we're playing anywhere from shows to two people, to two hundred, to two thousand ... You completely run the entire gamut."
As the Badlees try to make their mark on a national stage, they need to keep their "feet on the ground and be very patient," says Bill Kelly, formerly of The Buoys, and later, Dakota, which once toured the country with rock supergroup Queen.
"The wheels of this industry turn very slowly," says Kelly, who with the Buoys scored a national hit with the song "Timothy."
"Just when you think you have an understanding of how it works, you find out that you don't understand anything —mainly because there are no rules. The best advice I can give to any group like that is to be grateful for each day that you enjoy being able to do what you love to do and get paid for it.
"It's a rollercoaster ride," he continues. "There's going to be plenty of ups and downs and lots of bumps."
Palladino, in fact, says the opportunity to open the Buffalo concert arose when the group opening for most of the Page/Plant tour —The Tragically Hip — decided against playing this particular show. Very popular in nearby Canada, they felt they might soon be able to headline the arena someday themselves.
Jimmy Harnen of Plymouth was signed to the CBS/WTG label in 1989 and scored a national top-10 hit with "Where Are You Now?" Harnen likes what he sees in The Badlees, particularly their ambition.
"They just seem to be workaholics," says Harnen. "I think their music is good, Pete's a good singer, the band's great, they've got a great work ethic —it's just a matter of if the coin is going to land on their side."
"You have two ears and one mouth," he says, "you should listen twice as much as you speak."
Palladino says his group needs to maintain a hands-on role in all creative decisions. "This is our passion," he says. "This is our career."
He adds that Atlas/A&M has given the band that freedom. We need to "keep our eyes open, learn as much as we possibly can," says Palladino, "and be involved."
'On our own terms'
Before being signed to a national recording contract, the group often downplayed its importance in most interviews. It would be nice, they'd say, but the bottom line will always be music, and as long as they can make music, they'd be happy.
Over the years, I must have heard Palladino, guitarist Bret Alexander, bassist Paul Smith, guitarist Jeff Feltenberger and drummer Ron Simasek echo those sentiments a dozen times.
And even on the day this interview was conducted —the day "River Songs" was released across America, Palladino's words showed that nothing has changed.
"We realized we were going to get signed doing what we do —on our own terms —or it was OK if it didn't happen," he says. "You don't want to get a deal and jump through somebody's hoop.
"We'd still be doing what we're doing if we didn't have this major label deal," he adds. "We'd probably be working on another record ... The fact that we were able to gain the following that we have over the years —that's just amazing for us. It's just mind-boggling."
Yet despite the non-change in musical philosophy, certain things have changed for The Badlees. (I used to call Pete's house when I wanted an interview, now I go through the Media & Artist Relations Department at A&M Records.)
Besides a national release, national tour, and the big show in Buffalo, there's been even added attention focused on the band.
A recent Harrisburg show saw the group being filmed by a professional video crew for possible use on MTV. Also at the Harrisburg show was a state-of-the-art audio recording truck —sent by Atlas/A&M —to record the live performance.
In addition, the band was recently the subject of a locally produced half-hour television special.
Still, Palladino's demeanor hasn't changed. He's still quick to crack a joke or share a laugh.
"We're always going to stay the same and our values are always going to stay the same," he says. "It was just odd —in just getting this record deal —immediately how differently people treated you. Fans, people that I've known for years —family, friends —wanted to take pictures with me ... all of a sudden they see you as a 'national recording act.'
"We're still the same five guys who started playing in this band five years ago."