It was late March of this year and the word came suddenly. It was abrupt. And for many longtime fans of The Badlees, it was something they probably didn’t see coming.
Just five months after the release of a fine new album, the group announced that, after 24 years of making music, it was disbanding. First came a note posted via social media by songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Bret Alexander, announcing that he was leaving the band, effective immediately. Bassist Paul Smith followed the very next day. A few days later, lead vocalist Pete Palladino and drummer Ron Simasek announced that while the band would finish out a few shows that it had already booked – with guest musicians filling in for Alexander and Smith – The Badlees would cease to exist following those dates. Yes, a new double-disc CD set, “Epiphones and Empty Rooms,” featuring some of the most dynamic songs the band had ever recorded, was still fresh in everyone’s ears. And yes, the group, at the time, was still delivering knockout live shows. But The Badlees, they said, were done.
So what happened?
Well, for the band itself, the implosion was not as abrupt as it may have seemed. Though the group’s members had sometimes butted heads in the past and were always able to work through it, the most recent point of contention was in fact something that had been brewing for some time, even prior to the release of “Epiphones and Empty Rooms,” and its history actually dates back 14 years.
At that time, in 2000, Alexander and Smith opened Saturation Acres Recording Studio and began producing records as a full-time occupation, and while The Badlees never officially disbanded, all of its members were also being pulled in different directions. Solo albums were released. Side project bands were formed. There was some tension, and amid it all, Palladino also developed a busy career outside of music. When the band remerged for 2002’s “Renew,” Palladino was still able to do shows to support its release, and when the group released 2009’s “Love Is Rain,” he was again there to play select regional shows. But with the release of “Epiphones and Empty Rooms,” the group wanted to play more shows to support the album, including shows outside of the region, and Palladino’s schedule did not always allow for it. Thus, the group would sometimes perform without him, with Alexander performing all lead vocals. There were “with Pete” Badlees shows and “without Pete” Badlees shows. It became confusing to the fans, frustrating to the band – both to Alexander and Palladino, and the others – and it eventually became a point of contention.
Finally, things blew up from within.
“I guess that’s the way it worked out,” says Alexander, taking a break between sets during a recent solo appearance. “Enough has been said about the situation. The Badlees were a really good band. Bands break up. It happens. But 23 years is a great run.”
Indeed. Throughout the ‘90s, few bands, if any, played more than The Badlees. The group toured tirelessly throughout all of Pennsylvania, building strong footholds in Harrisburg, York, Allentown, Reading, Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre, and every little town in between. In 1995, strong regional sales of the group’s “River Songs” album led to a national recording contract with Polydor/Atlas Records. Songs such as “Angeline Is Coming Home” and “Fear of Falling” cracked the national charts, and the band did shows with Bob Seger, The Allman Brothers, and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Four years later, the band landed another national record deal for the release of “Up There Down Here,” and though it appeared the group might disband in the early 2000s, it had performed and recorded regularly since 2002. Last year, the band again joined Bob Seger for a series of arena shows, and in October came the release of “Epiphones.”
Currently, The Badlees – usually still fronted by Palladino – are playing their final shows. The last scheduled date is Oct. 10 in Jim Thorpe. Alexander, after his initial announcement that he was leaving the group, did play a few previously booked shows, during which he fronted the band. His final show, for which he will sing lead vocals, will be at Musikfest in Bethlehem on Aug. 4. He says keeping the gigs is a matter of fulfilling obligations and that he had no odd feelings the first time The Badlees performed without him. A final Badlees show, with the full band, has not been discussed.
What’s happening now is a new band. The project, called Gentleman East, takes its name from the title track of Alexander’s 2004 solo album. It features Alexander on vocals and guitar, Paul Smith on bass, Ron Simasek on drums, and Nyke Van Wyk on violin. Holding the lead guitarist spot is Aaron Fink, formerly of the multi-platinum selling Breaking Benjamin and, most recently, Stardog Champion. Fink, who grew up a Badlees fan, had performed on the band’s 2009 “Love Is Rain” album and had done some live shows with the group before guitarist Dustin Drevitch took over the lead guitarist spot. Now, with Drevitch focusing on a new solo project, the timing was right for Fink.
“For a while, with The Badlees, we were alternating,” says Alexander. “We had Aaron playing some shows and Dustin playing some shows. But then Aaron got into Stardog, and we were getting ready to make a record. Time went on. Situations changed. And the wind kind of blew us both back this way. It’s awesome. We’re having a good time. It’s a completely different animal. The band is basically the Pete-less Badlees that was out there playing, with Aaron instead of Dustin.”
Alexander, who remains close with Drevitch and is producing his new solo project, appreciates the talents of both musicians.
“Aaron’s a different kind of guitar player,” he says. “With The Badlees, where we left off, it had developed into a more jammy vibe. There was a lot more jamming and soloing and extended songs. And we certainly had a very strong Americana, classic thing going on. The new band is definitely going to be more structured. I think it’s going to be a little more rockin’ and a little more modern.”
He is excited about the changes.
“Honestly, I’ve made so many records over time that I just kind of look at the ingredients that I have and work around that – from the kind of songs that get written, to the arrangements, to everything,” he says. “Aaron’s really great with parts, and great with sounds, and great with a lot of the spacey kind of things that he does, and that’s working its way in. Rather than try to make him fit into a mold that I have, I try to shape what I do to use the resources that I have. And I’m ready to do something new and approach something differently.”
Fink agrees. Though he enjoyed working with Stardog Champion – his first post-Breaking Benjamin project that also featured former Breaking Benjamin bassist Mark James Klepaski and former Lifer vocalist Nick Coyle – he says several factors contributed to the band being a short-lived endeavor.
“Mark and I kind of went into that project during a weird spot in our lives,” says Fink. “The previous band, for 10 years, was obviously quite successful, and at the time, that was all ending, and we were going through a lawsuit and all of that fun stuff that comes when you get divorced. We were in a weird headspace. It wasn’t hard for me, but maybe it was hard for some other folks to really get focused on something and feel like we were moving forward, instead of clinging onto the past. There was a little bit of that. And I also think we were expecting more out of the gate, coming off of the level we had been playing at. I think we were shooting a little too high. And when it really didn’t take off, there was a feeling of disappointment. Plus, we had some management issues. But it was no big drama. We threw the spitball against the wall and it didn’t stick, and that happens sometimes. We gave it a shot, we wrote some songs together, and we had fun. Life goes on.”
Fink, who is also recording a solo album, is already enjoying his work with Gentleman East. He jokes that “it only took 20 years,” but says he’s pleased to be officially playing in a band with other musicians that he has long admired.
“It feels really natural,” he says. “Bret gave me a call a couple of months ago and said, ‘I need to take a break from The Badlees and clear my head and write some songs.’ And it was perfect timing because I had been working on music of my own and looking for an outlet as well. I’ve known Bret since 1990 or ’91, and when he gave me a buzz, I said, ‘I’m in.’ I’m a huge fan of his songwriting and his voice, and I trust him with the direction. As a fan and friend, I didn’t even hesitate. We’ve been writing songs for the past two months, separately and together, and it’s been fun. His voice has really taken on a life of its own over the last 10 years. He’s really stepped forward as a lead singer. With this band, I think he’s going to be like, ‘Hey, I’m a songwriter, and I just want to sing my own songs.’ And I admire that. He’s earned it.”
On Friday, June 27, Gentleman East will make its Wilkes-Barre club debut at The Other Side at Bart & Urby’s in downtown Wilkes-Barre. The new project will also release a five-song EP this fall.
“We’ve got a lot of the songs written,” says Alexander. “We have enough songs to do it now. But we’re giving it a couple of more weeks to write a few more things before we sign off on what we’re going to actually record.”
As for the live shows and putting together set lists, Alexander says there’s plenty of material to choose from. In addition to the newly written Gentleman East numbers, he says the group might throw in a few Badlees tunes, as well as songs from the 2001 project by The Cellarbirds. That band, which featured himself, Simasek, and Smith, also released a critically-acclaimed album that received airplay across the nation. Still, more than anything, the focus is on the new, and with a new band with a new name, Alexander say he likes the idea of starting with a clean slate.
“I work with a lot of bands, and I see people get tripped up,” he says. “They get involved in making a record, and then they plan the release party, and then they do the release party, then they fall into a fit of depression because they don’t know what to do next. To me, this is just a part of a process. I want to make this EP just so people have some music, just so I can hand somebody something and see what they think. Then we’ll probably make another record and start doing other things.
“It’s going to take a while. It’s not going to happen overnight. We’re back to square one. But I just want it to get into a situation where I can just feel good about it. And go for it.”