Saturday, December 3, 2022

 Badlees still hold the cards

                                                                                                                                              Photo by Jim Gavenus

First album in nearly 10 years showcases band members' talents, flexes power of the unit

Music On The Menu
December 3, 2022 

If you were a betting man, you may have wagered that 2013's "Epiphones & Empty Rooms" might be the final album from The Badlees. And it would have been a pretty safe bet. Principal songwriter/guitarist Bret Alexander, who produced most of the band's albums, left the group shortly after its release. Bassist and fellow producer Paul Smith left as well. And though there were still some occasional live shows featuring new members, things never felt quite the same with the kings of Pennsylvania roots-rock and no new music was released by the band. And truthfully, if it were not for the group's induction into the Central Pennsylvania Music Hall of Fame last year, you very well may have collected on your wager. But when the band reunited for a few songs at that awards ceremony, which was held in Harrisburg, it wasn't just as though a spark was felt in the room. It was a lightning bolt. The kings were back. And in 2022, there is a new Badlees album. And with it they have laid down a royal flush.

The album, fittingly titled "The Badlees," is the group's first release to feature all five original members since 2009's "Love is Rain" and the first that all five made full contributions since 2002's "Renew." For thousands of the band's fans scattered across the Keystone State, vocalist Pete Palladino, guitarist Jeff Feltenberger, drummer Ron Simasek, along with Alexander and Smith, are the Fab Five. And it is indeed quite fabulous to hear them making music together again.

The album opens with "1,000 Melodies Without Words," and right from the get-go, we are reminded of the band's gift of crafting memorable melodies matched, verse-for-verse, with gripping lyrics. It's got a thumpy gut-punch rhythm section, soaring vocals from Palladino, textured harmonies from Feltenberger and Alexander flexes his songwriting talents as only he can do. Bring it all together and it's Fab Five.

"My mind's an ambulance in traffic
My heart's a flock of birds
How do I navigate this static
Of a 1,000 melodies without words"

Somewhere, Bruce Springsteen just smiled.

"10 Ton Heart," sounds as though it was written while speeding down a highway at twilight. It's a driving track, both literally and figuratively, with just a touch of pop. More than anything, it creates a mood. Music, when at its best, has an actual ambience to it, and when Alexander picks up his mandolin, as he does on this track, you can count on that happening. But that's just part of what makes "10 Ton Heart' so gripping. Palladino's inflections and the ripping guitars also help shape the song ... a song that will likely have you stepping on the gas pedal a bit harder. "Face Under Glass," a breezy track about Americana and family, comes with a fun vocal breakdown and "Tear It Down" offers a quick bridge-section that only Alexander could write. A great bridge is something even the best of songwriters can struggle with, but Alexander has been with penning them for three decades. Palladino, beautifully backed up by Feltenberger, also shines on the powerful track, as does violinist Nyke Van Wyk.

The contemplative "What I've Wasted" has a chorus that pulls you in and won't let go and the thoughtful "Leaving Here," with Alexander on lead vocals, talks about making the difficult decision to move on from a place or situation -  a place or situation that was once important to you - simply because it doesn't feel the same as it once did. "Nasty Alcoholic" comes with a Warren Zevon vibe and longtime Badlees fans will take delight with hearing Palladino and Feltenberger trading off vocals on the insanely catchy "The Price You Pay." Though "The Badlees" is a very modern, very 2022-sounding album, this track offers an old-school Badlees moment that briefly takes the listener back to "Diamonds in The Coal."

Somewhere, 10,000 Badlees fans just smiled.

"These Days," with its stirring, cinematic, U2 feel, comes with a haunting chorus that sounds as if Palladino, Alexander and Feltenberger are all singing together. And considering some of the album was recorded remotely, it's also a fine testament to the unit's production skills. The album closes with the wonderful "My Friends," a brilliant country-inspired number with a surprisingly big/little moment that Johnny Cash and some of his buddies would have covered in a milli-second.

Nearly 30 years ago, I called The Badlees "Pennsylvania's Best Band." A few years later, when they released some of their music on a national record label and were touring the country with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, I called them "America's Best Band." Both still apply. Even if it's only when the mood strikes them, they are still the kings. And "The Badlees," which will be released on December 23, is another creative album loaded, track-for-track, with very creative songs. It captures the special talents that have been dealt to each member, yet it also captures the special magic that only happens when they work together.

Fab five.

Royal flush.

(Alan K. Stout has written about rock and pop music in Northeastern Pennsylvania since 1992. His weekly radio show, "Music On The Menu," airs every Sunday from 9-10 p.m. on 105 The River in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Hazleton, Bloomsburg.)

Friday, July 10, 2020

Luzerne County Historical Society receives donation
of COVID-19 interviews from radio host 
The Luzerne County Historical Society receives a donation of 19 recorded interviews focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic. The interviews, which were conducted by radio show host Alan K. Stout, discussed how COVID-19 has affected the local arts, entertainment and musical community. Shown, from left: Mark J. Riccetti Jr., director of operations and programs, Luzerne County Historical Society; Alan K. Stout, radio host, The River; Mary Walsh, interim executive director, Luzerne County Historical Society.
WILKES-BARRE - The Luzerne County Historical Society, which is hoping to preserve the oral history of the COVID-19 crisis, recently received a donation of 19 recorded interviews focusing on the pandemic. The interviews, which were conducted by Alan K. Stout, discussed how COVID-19 has affected the local arts, entertainment and musical community. Stout is a radio show host with The River. (100.7-FM. 103.5-FM, 104.9-FM) 

Stout covered arts and entertainment for The Times Leader and The Weekender from 1992-2011. His weekly music column, "Music On The Menu" appeared in The Times Leader from 1994-2005 and in The Weekender from 2005-2011. He continues to contribute occasional stories to both publications as a freelance writer. Stout's weekly radio show, also called "Music On The Menu," has aired every Sunday night since 2004. The show was put on hiatus on March 29 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closing of Mohegan Sun Pocono, from where the program is broadcast. Shortly thereafter, Stout began conducting phone interviews from home with various people involved in the music scene of Northeastern Pennsylvania. Titled the "Music On The Menu COVID-19 Podcast Interviews," the conversations were posted to the Music On The Menu channel on YouTube and posted to the Music On The Menu page on Facebook. 

"Initially, when we put radio the show on ice for a while, due to COVID-19, I thought I'd just take some time off from Music On The Menu," said Stout. "Between the newspaper column and the radio show, I'd been doing something with local music, every week, for 26 years. But after about two weeks, I guess the old newspaper reporter in me kicked in. I wanted to talk to people. I wanted to interview people. I wanted to see how they were doing, personally, and how all of this was affecting them professionally. Because we'd never seen anything like it." 

The first interview was posted on April 15 and the last on June 1. The series included conversations with Bret Alexander, Jimmy Harnen, A.J. Jump, Bill Kelly, Joe Nardone Jr., Will Beekman, Dustin Douglas, Richie Kossuth, Ellie Rose, Joe Wegleski, Patrick McGlynn, Chris Hludzik, Richard Briggs, Eddie Appnel, Loreen Bohannon, Tom Flannery, Mike "Miz" Mizwinski, Aaron Fink and Michael Cloeren, Most interviews ran 30-40 minutes in length. They have been donated to the Luzerne County Historical Society as a 10-CD set and also in mp3 form. 

"They are timepieces," said Stout. "Some of the first ones were done pretty early on when we were just getting into the stay-at-home orders and everything was shutting down. And, like everywhere else, the affect on the music industry was pretty devastating." 
The interviewees ranged in age from those in their twenties to sixties. Stout says his intent was to talk with not just working musicians, but with people from all walks of life working in the music industry. 
"Quite a few of those that I spoke with were working musicians, and with all of their gigs suddenly being cancelled, they certainly had a unique perspective on everything," said Stout. "Most of them got very creative right away and started doing live web streams from home on social media. But the series wasn't just about musicians. I also talked to people who produced records in local recording studios, and people that managed music venues, both large and small. And so you have A.J. Jump from Karl Hall talking about postponing about 40 shows and Will Beekman from Mohegan Sun Arena talking about postponing concerts and sporting events. Jimmy Harnen, a native of Plymouth, is the president of one of the largest record labels in Nashville, and he shared his perspective. Joe Nardone Jr. talked about the challenges of keeping his record stores in business. Richie Kossuth co-owns a music store and sound company and plays in a band, so he had thoughts on everything. Loreen Bohannon tours the country as a sound technician and all of her summer tours were canceled. Richard Briggs talked about canceling the Briggs Farm Blues Fest. Bret Alexander had played with The Badlees. Aaron Fink had played with Breaking Benjamin. Both were national recording artists and had seen a lot, but nothing like COVID-19." 

Stout says that some of the interviews were done shortly after the passing of Jerry Hludzik, a legendary local musician who had been a member of national acts The Buoys and Dakota. Thus several of the guests in the interview series who had known and worked with Hludzik also shared their thoughts on him. In early June, when most of Northeastern Pennsylvania began to enter the yellow and green phases of re-opening, he felt the series had covered every topic and thus decided to end it at #19. 
"Nineteen seemed like the appropriate number to wrap up the COVID-19 series," said Stout. "When we started, everyone was still a bit shell-shocked by everything that was happening and nobody really knew what direction things were heading. And about six weeks later, when we did the last one, Micheal Cloren, who manages the Penn's Peak concert venue, was talking about trying to put some shows back on the calendar for the fall. There was a light at the end of the tunnel which, hopefully, will remain bright. But there's still a lot of uncertainty." 
The Luzerne County Historical Society appreciates receiving the recordings. 
"This is great donation," said Mark J. Riccetti Jr., director of operations and programs at the Luzerne County Historical Society. "I think it will be a great impetus for future donations, and it also shows that you don't necessarily have to be what we call one of the 'front-line' workers. It doesn't have to be the stories that you see on TV. We're looking to collect any oral histories. We want to know how this affects every single person in the valley." 
Stout says that, through the interviews, he's grateful to have helped play a small role in helping preserve some local history. His weekly radio show will return to the airwaves on August 2. 
"I love the Historical Society," said Stout. "I've worked on some projects with them in the past. And when I saw a post on their Facebook page asking for people to contribute some oral history stories regarding COVID-19, I thought the interviews that I had done might interest them. Granted - they deal mostly with arts, entertainment and music - but their stories are also a part of the story. Everyone, no matter what your profession may be, has a story. And these people from our local music community talked about how the pandemic has affected people's creativity and their livelihoods. And I'm grateful that they took the time to share those stories. 
"Hopefully," he added, "more people from all walks of life will do the same. If you're a doctor or a nurse and you were, or still are, working in the ICU with COVID-19 patients, take 20-30 minutes some night and document your story. If you worked in a supermarket, do the same. If you had COVID-19, or someone close to you did, document it. You can record your thoughts and memories as a voice-memo right on your smart-phone and e-mail it right to the Historical Society. It's easy. And it's something that future generations will certainly be interested in. This has been one of the most significant historical events of our time." 

(For information on submitting COVID-19 stories to the Luzerne County Historical Society, call (570) 823-6244)  

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Our friend, Bret

Bret Alexander is admired as a musician and loved as a friend

January 29, 2019

It was in Bearsville, New York, near Woodstock, in October of 1997 when I learned everything that I needed to know about Bret Alexander as a musician and as a songwriter. And that knowledge came from his answer to one simple question …

We were in the recording studio, late at night, listening to some tracks from the Badlees “Up There Down Here” album, which the band was recording at the time. I was there on assignment from The Times Leader. The paper had asked if I’d like to do a story about the recording of the album, which all of NEPA was eagerly awaiting. The band said they were fine with me hanging around for a few days, and so off I went.

The Catskills, as you’d imagine, are gorgeous in October, and the studio sat in a picturesque wooded area that I’ve always felt helped shape the sound of “Up There Down Here.”  It’s as though the surrounding ambiance actually bled into some of its tracks. And as Bret and I sat there in the studio listening to the music, I asked him if what we were doing – listening to a completed track, perfectly mixed, with all of its layers and instrumentation – was his favorite part of making music.

Bret in Bearsville, 1997

“No,” he said. “The best part is when you first write the song. I can kind of hear in my head what might become of it later - with the band and in the studio - but the best part is when you’re just sitting on your couch with a guitar and you know might have a good song.”

For Bret, it’s always been about the songs. Nothing more. And no one that I’ve known in my 28 years of writing about rock music has written better songs. I saw, in him, a very special talent back in 1993, when we first met, and between my former newspaper column and my radio show, there is no other artist that I’ve interviewed more. And that’s because his songs have always deserved the most attention.

Bret, it was revealed last week, has a genetic degenerative kidney condition that requires a kidney transplant. The operation will take place in February, and while he recovers, he will be unable to play shows and work in the recording studio, which is how he makes his living. And thus many of his friends here in NEPA have come together to present “BANDing together for BRET,” a benefit show that will help him out, financially, as he recovers from the surgery.

As mentioned, I’ve written a lot of stories about Bret, the musician. But today I’m writing about Bret, the musician, and Bret, my friend. I have never shared some of these stories before, and so you might want to grab a coffee or something and get yourself comfortable …

Last night of the "River Songs" tour.
Bud Light Amphitheater, Harveys Lake, 1996 
My review of the Badlees “River Songs” album was published on the day it was first released, independently, in February of 1995. I was absolutely floored by some of the songwriting, and in that review, I compared Bret Alexander to a young Springsteen or Mellencamp. That same week, at the band’s CD release party, he thanked me for the kind words and it was during that brief conversation that I told him, for the first time, how I felt about him:

“You,” I said, “are a very talented man.”

We didn’t know each other that well at the time. I’d only done a few stories on the group back then, but after reading the songwriting credits on “River Songs”  I realized it was Bret who was the creative force and the soul of The Badlees, and thus from then on I always made sure to chat with him a bit at the shows and to make sure that he was a part of any Badlees story that I was writing. To me, a band is all about its songs. And Bret was the songs.

In 1996, The Badlees held a video release party for “Angeline Is Coming Home” in The Woodlands Grand Ballroom. It was, to this day, one of the biggest crowds that I have ever seen there – probably about 1,500 people. The next day, the band was heading out to go on tour with Bob Seger, and so I asked Bret to give me a call in a few weeks, after they’d done some shows, to let me know how the tour was going. All of the group’s fans were excited about what was happening and I knew they would enjoy reading an update from the road. Bret said he would call and a few weeks later my phone in the newsroom rang. It was Bret. We did the story. And I also knew right then that he was not only a very talented man, but also a man of his word. Today, 25 years later, he has never shown otherwise.  
Bret performing at "We All Shine On."
River Street Jazz Cafe, 2005 

Years later, after our friendship began to develop, Bret would sometimes give me an early listen to some of the band’s new recordings. The fact that he valued my opinion meant a lot to me and I was very flattered. In 1998 he gave me an early and still unreleased copy of “Up There Down Here," and when I heard the song “Don’t Let Me Hide” for the first time, I once again realized what a brilliant songwriter he was.  And not just because it’s such a great tune, but because of the backstory behind it, which I don’t believe has ever been told …

The Badlees told their fans on stage several times in 1997 that the follow-up to “River Songs” was going to be titled “Up There Down Here.” The reason, they said, was because, sonically, it contained some of their heaviest songs and some of their softest songs. (Examples: “Middle of The Busiest Road” and “Running Up That Hill.”) But on another occasion, I’d heard that the name of the album came from the sessions themselves, as most of the recordings were done “up there” in Bearsville, while some tweaking to the tracks was done “down here” in Pennsylvania. I was told that “up there, down here” was a phrase that the band often used during the sessions - ”We’ll do that up there. We can do that down here” – and thus the name of the album. It was also about the journey of being on stage for so long and then finding yourself back in the audience, right where you started. The fact that there were a few stories floating around about how the album got its title didn’t really matter. They all made sense and it was a cool title. But there’s a much better part to the story …

Bret performing at "Concert For Karen."
Voodoo Lounge, 2000.
“Don’t Let Me Hide,” which would later become the album’s first single, was not recorded in Bearsville. In fact, it wasn’t even written yet when the Bearsville sessions ended and when it was initially thought that the “Up There Down Here” album was complete. But after hearing the final Bearsville sessions, the group’s label, Atlas/A&M, told the band they wanted a few more songs. What was it that Tom Petty sang? “Their A&R man said, “We don’t hear a single.” That was the deal. And so Bret wrote some more songs. But I remember him telling me that he wasn’t too happy about it. He thought the record was done. And he really didn’t like having someone else tell him that it wasn’t. Still, he got to work. And he wrote “Don’t Let Me Hide.” And if you listen to it -  now that you know this story - you can see that parts of the lyrics are actually about writing a song that you don’t really want to write. It’s about toiling away in the basement, working on the song, while his wife was upstairs. That’s where the line in the pre-chorus of song comes from … “You’re up there, and I’m down here.” It's about facing adversity, and not losing yourself in the process, and asking your loved ones for strength. That's what Bret wrote about. And in doing so, he not only delivered another fantastic song, but he also brilliantly tied it into the name of the album – an album which had already been named several months prior.  

“Don’t Let Me Hide,” which was recorded in Los Angeles, several months after Bearsville,  was the lead single from “Up There Down Here.” Ironically, one of Tom Petty’s Heartbrteakers played on it. And, now that you know the story behind it, you know that even back then Bret was already starting to flip the music business the bird.

“You want another song? How about THIS.”

Once “Up There Down Here” was completed and Bret gave me that early version of it, I fell in love with it. The songs were incredible: “Luther’s Windows,”  “Thinking In Ways,” “34 Winters,” “Silly Little Man,” “Middle of The Busiest Road,” “Running Up That Hill,” “Don’t Let Me Hide” … I thought it was even better than “River Songs.” But just as the album was completed also came the $10 billion dollar Polygram/Seagram sale, which later led to the formation of the Universal Music Group. And for well over a year, no one heard the album. It, like the Badlees and hundreds of other bands, was tangled up in corporate limbo. And as a fan and friend of the band, it was killing me. I felt the album needed to be heard. I felt it must be heard. But whenever I talked to Bret about it, he seemed totally unconcerned. He said he enjoyed writing the songs and recording them, but if no one ever got to hear them, it didn’t really bother him. He’d just write more songs.

Bret at "Concert for A Cause"
The Woodlands, 2007
And that’s what he did. And that’s what he’s continued to do. But how he handled that turbulent time in his career told me so much about him as an artist. He wasn’t about to mourn the loss of those songs. He’d already gotten all that he could out of them and he was moving on to new creative projects and new tunes. And like he told me in the studio that night, the best part is always when you first write them.

Eventually, in 1999, The Badlees, tired of the ongoing delays, asked to be released from Polygram. And as soon they were freed, they dropped a new album, “Amazing Grace.”  Of course it contained some of Bret’s best songs, including “Amazing Grace To You,” “Time Turns Around” and “Poison Ivy.” All were done at his home studio. A few months later, another label signed the Badlees, acquired the rights to “Up There Sown Here” and finally released it. And so, within just a few months, fans of the band got two great albums.

I guess Bret was right when he told me not to worry about it.

One of the things that has meant the most to me throughout my career in journalism and in radio is my friendship with Bret and the fact that he has at times considered me a confidante. Trusting me with an early copy of “Up There Down Here” was an early example, and I remember a year or so later, when The Badlees released the “The Days Parade” EP, he told me the band was thinking of including a cover tune on the record and he asked me which song I thought they should record. I suggested Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” because I loved they way he sang it at the band’s shows. It ended up on the record. In 2002, he came over to my old apartment one night and gave me an early listen to the “Renew” album, which was the first Badlees record in three years. As we sat there listing to the tracks, I was particularly captured by the song “Too Many Changes” and I told him that it didn’t sound like anything the band had done before. He told me he was going for a bit of a Motown vibe on the tune, and that he kind of imagined guys from the ‘70s with old-school long skinny microphones and polyester suits singing along to the bridge section. Once again, he nailed it. I think it’s one of his best songs. And I am grateful to have had been able to have had such conversations with him about his music.

Bret and I have also gone to see some pretty good shows together. We caught U2 in Philly, Springsteen at State College and B.B. King at The Kirby Center. Bret loved the late B.B. King. He always plays that black Gibson guitar because of B.B. And being able to meet B.B. with Bret after the show at The Kirby was a lot of fun. I don’t know if I’d ever seen him so happy. When we went to see U2 do a big stadium show, Bret took in the whole concert in silence. Anyone that knows him knows he’s not going to be standing on his chair, singing along to every song or waiving a lighter in the air. That’s just not his way. And so I had no idea what he was thinking. After the show, when we were walking back to the car, I asked him if he liked it.

Bret at Montage Mountain in front
 of the Saturation Acres stage.
 Anti-bullying benefit, 2012.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I thought it was great. I don’t think most people have any idea how hard it is to pull something like that off, on that scale, and do what those guys do.”

I think if U2 ever heard some of Bret’s music they’d say the same about him.

Like everyone that knows him, I also have some funny Bret stories. And the better you get to know him, the more of his humor you’ll see. For 12 years, from 1999-2011, I worked on a benefit show called “Concert for Karen/Concert For A Cause.”  And at a few of the first few shows, I played bass with The Badlees on the song “Laugh To Keep From Crying.” I am nowhere near the musician that those guys are, but the song had a lot of meaning to us, regarding “Concert For Karen,” and so I played it with them. The first few times that I did it, I played pretty well. It sounded good. But by 2002, the show had grown so much in size that we moved it to The Woodlands Grand Ballroom. We had two stages and twice as many bands on the bill, and as one of the show’s organizers, I guess you could say that I was a bit too busy to spend enough time with my bass in the days leading up to the show, and on stage, during “Laugh To Keep From Crying’” I briefly lost my way. It probably wasn’t even noticeable to those at the show, and I soon got back on track with the band, but musicians notice these things.

“Well, that was a (expletive) train wreck,” I said to Bret with a smile after the set.

“Well, you had a (expletive) year to practice,” he said with laugh.

We still laugh about that one.

I’ve also recorded with Bret at his studio, Saturation Acres, many times. Sometimes it’s been a song that I’ve written and sometimes it’s been a cover song, just for fun. Those days in the studio with him are always among my favorite days of the year because it also gives us the chance to catch up on things. And as anyone that has ever recorded with him knows, you are working with the best. And on one special occasion, Bret went the extra mile for me. I’d written a song called “Summer Days” that I thought was OK and that I wanted to record, but I knew it needed something more. I knew it needed Bret. At that point, I’d already recorded with him before, but for this song, I asked him if he would help me finish writing the tune. I know that I can’t write a good bridge to save my life and that I needed some help with the arrangement. And though we were already pretty good friends by then, I idolized him as a songwriter, and I was still a bit nervous about asking him to help me write a song.

“Sure, man,” he said. “You know me. I love that stuff.”

A week or so later, Bret came over to my place and I gave him a tape of what I had. He took it home and then came back a week or two later with some ideas. He felt the chorus was strong and that the song should begin with its chorus, which is something the Beatles would sometimes do. He also, of course, had a bridge. And we sat at my kitchen table and finished it. I still have a recording of it, which was done on an old boom-box, and it is one of my favorite things. To me, it was no different than if Springsteen was sitting in my house helping me write a song.  A few weeks later, I went to Saturation Acers to properly record it, and it later received airplay on 14 radio stations throughout Pennsylvania and hit No. 5 of the NEPA singles chart.

I don’t have the talent nor the ability to write and record a song that could become a regional hit on the radio. But working with Bret, that’s what happened.

Most of my sessions with Bret have been fun and seamless. But there was one, when recording a cover of John Lennon’s “Watching The Wheels,” that was not. I was excited about the session all week, and the night before, I had total insomnia. Still, I drove to Danville, where the studio was located at the time, and Bret spent all day laying down the tracks for the song. Finally, after a long day in the studio, it was time for me to sing. And I sucked. We could not get a good take on the vocals. I tried a few times, but Bret finally told me to just go home and come back again another day.  I lobbied him to try again, but he was done. He said it was his daughter’s birthday and that he was going home. I came back a few days later to take another shot at it and got it right in no time, but we still laugh about the day he kicked me out and sent me home.  

There have been lots of good times and laughs at Saturation Acres. In 2010, on the night we recorded a final song for the “Concert For a Cause 9” album – a cover of U2’s “Walk On” - Bret began doing an imitation of me, adlibbing a tirade of lyrics about why we were no longer going to do the annual charity concert. Eddie Appnel, John Smith, Dustin Douglas, Tim Farley, Paul Young … we were all laughing so hard we were in tears. It was honestly one of the best laughs that I’ve ever had. 

It was also at Saturation Acres where I got a great glimpse of Bret’s humility. He’s accomplished a lot with his music. He had two national record deals. He’s done shows Bob Seger, the Allman Brothers and Plant/Page. Gregg Allman liked his tunes so much that he once asked Bret if he’d like to write with him. NBC-TV used “Fear of Falling” during the 1996 Winter Olympics. I once heard The Badlees on Muzak in the supermarket and The Badlees were once the answer to a question on “Jeopardy.” Here in NEPA, they headlined amphitheaters and the F.M. Kirby Center. It’s cool stuff. But you’d never know about any of it from just talking to Bret. He is too modest. He is too unassuming. And on one occasion, about 20 years ago, when I was recording a song with Bret and his partner Paul Smith at the studio, I got to see just how much.

At some point during the day, I started talking to an intern, who had been there for a few months.

“It must be pretty cool for you to be working here with these guys,” I said. “They’ve done some great stuff.”

He looked at me with look of confusion on his face.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Well, you know … working in the studio with a few guys from The Badlees … that’s pretty cool,” I said. “These guys are great.”

“I know The Badlees,” he said, as he rattled off the names of a few of their hit songs. “What do you mean … I’m working with The Badlees?”

Bret mixing a song at Saturation Acres

Bret and Paul were behind the studio glass at the time and could not hear the conversation.

“Those guys right there are Badlees,” I said, pointing to them through the glass.

I thought the kid was going to fall right over. You’d think that at some point, it might have come up in conversation. But not with Bret and Paul. There was not one thing in that studio that would give any indication of some of the things they had accomplished. 

Want another example of his humility? At one point, about 10 years ago, Bret told me that he didn’t even own copies of most of his own records. Usually, he said, if someone asked him about one of his albums, he’d just give them his only copy. I burned him a whole bunch of his best songs onto a couple of CDs and gave them to him. “Someday,” I said, “Your daughters are going to want to have these.”

In regards to the upcoming “BANDing together for BRET” concert, there is something else about Bret that I’d like to share …

Over the past 21 years, I have personally been involved with 16 different charity events that have involved music. From 1999-2011, there were 13 “Concert For Karen/Concert For A Cause” shows, which aided numerous local charities, ranging from children's programs to homeless shelters to programs for veterans. There was a "We All Shine On" John Lennon tribute show, which took place in 2005, on the 25th anniversary of Lennon’s death, with proceeds benefiting the John Lennon Scholarship Fund. There was “Music, Motors & More,” which took place in 2012 at Montage Mountain, with proceeds benefiting local anti-bullying programs. In 2016, there was “Maximum Respect: A Tribute to George Wesley” and in 2017 there was “Jane Jam.”

Bret performed at every single one of them.

And he has donated his time and talents to countless other such benefits. He has always been there, sharing his time and talents, to help others. Even the former “Concert for A Cause” albums, which helped raised thousands of dollars for local charities, are totally linked to Bret. It was Bret, in 2002, that suggested a companion CD to accompany the annual “Concert For Karen.” And what he offered was extraordinary. He offered an EP that featured the first new Badlees music in three years. The band’s fans were clamoring for something new, and the first time they heard the songs “Renew” and “See Me As A Picture,” it was on the “Concert for A Karen” EP. And all of the money went to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of America.

The “Concert For Karen” EP was such a success that we decided to do a companion CD, to accompany the show, every year. It soon evolved into the “Concert For A Cause” compilation CD, featuring songs from some of the region’s best bands. For 10 years, every spring, those albums would often spend several weeks at No. 1 on the local album chart. They helped countless people and numerous charities and they were great exposure for local talent. And it all started with Bret.
"Concert For Karen 4," The Woodlands, 2002

I am proud to call Bret Alexander a friend and I am grateful for it. I recall, when my mother passed away a few years ago, seeing him walk into the viewing and being so appreciative of that kind gesture. I also recall the good time that was had at his wedding reception, some 20 years ago, and I’m glad that he still has a strong woman like his wife, Kelly, in his life. And I enjoy hearing him boast about his daughters.

I also love how, even today, he always tells me, “The only time I drink gin is when I’m with you.” This is usually towards the end of one of our recording sessions. I bring the gin. And we always have a good time. I can also recall, from 2015, what a privilege it was to write the presentation speech when he received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” at The Electric City Music Conference and to be there for him that night. And I recall how, 10 years ago, when my daughter was only three years old, the first song she ever sang was "Drive Back Home." And I recall how, for the last few tunes that I’ve recorded with him, I brought my bass to the studio even though I didn’t know the bass-lines to the songs. Bret taught them to me on the spot. It just happened, again, just two months ago.

Bret, as I said in 1995, is a very talented man. And he is always the coolest guy in the room. And for all of these years, he has been the heart, the soul and the center of this musical community. From The Badlees, to his great solo work, to The Cellarbirds, to Gentleman East, he has given us some of the best music that we have ever heard. And as a producer, he has helped hundreds of other artists. And when it comes to charity events, he has always been there.

To say we owe him one would be an understatement.

We’ve all owed him one for a long time.

See you at The Woodlands on April 11.

For information about “BANDing together for BRET,” visit

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

MiZ to rock Jazz Café with full set of Clapton 

Mike Mizwinski, while finding success in Nashville,
returns home for special holiday show

Special to The Weekender

For more than 10 years, Mike Mizwinski has been regarded as one of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s best guitarists. And on Thanksgiving Eve, he’ll be paying tribute to one of the greatest guitarists of all-time.  

“MiZ plays Clapton, with special guest Justin Mazer,” will blast the River Street Jazz Café on November 27 with a show featuring nothing but the music of “Slowhand.” Mizwinski, a native of Pittston who relocated to Nashville last year, has done tribute-type shows before celebrating the music of Tom Petty, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead. Wednesday’s show will be the third time he’ll be doing a full night of Clapton.  

“Growing up, I was a huge fan,” says Mizwinski, calling from Nashville. “My father got me into him. The first song I ever learned how to play was a Clapton song. The thing about Clapton that's fun is his songs are great vehicles to jam on, and to improvise on, and to extend and sort of interpret in your own way. With some artists you have to kind of have to stick to book, and then there's some that are more fun to just kind of interpret.  I just have a blast interpreting his songs and making them our own.”

Clapton’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career spans five decades. In the ‘60s, there was his pioneering work with The Yardbirds, Cream and Blind Faith. Later, “Times Pieces,” a greatest hits package that featured some of his best work of the ‘70s, contained tracks such as "I Shot the Sheriff," "After Midnight," "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," “Wonderful Tonight," “Cocaine,” “Promises,” “Lay Down Sally” and “Layla." That alone would have made for a remarkable career, but Clapton forged on into the ‘80s with hits such as “Forever Man,” “It’s In The Way That You Use It,” “Pretending” and “Bad Love,” the latter two of which came from his multi-platinum album, “Journeyman.” In the ‘90s, Clapton gave a landmark performance on “MTV Unplugged,” which is best known best for his deeply personal performance of “Tears In Heaven” and his brilliant reworking of “Layla.” He has continued to tour and record, he has won 18 Grammy Awards, and he is widely considered to be one of the greatest musicians of all-time.

Mizwinski says he’s a fan Clapton’s complete catalog of work.

“I like it all,” he says. “If I had to pick a favorite era, I’d say it was the Cream days. I love that old Cream stuff. And I guess the reason that I love it is because it’s what got me so interested in him. That’s what got me playing.  ‘Journeyman’ was also a big album for me growing up. My parents had it and we used to listen to it. Later, when I went to college, I got into ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’ and the ‘70s stuff. Throughout my life I’ve gotten into different aspects of his career. There’s a few ‘lost’ albums in there, too, that I‘ve heard recently, but I hadn’t even heard of before. I really like his whole career.”

Success and artistic growth in Nashville  

Mizwinski himself has been actively recording for more than a decade and has released several critically acclaimed, roots-rock albums, including “East Hope Avenue,” “Parking Meters” and “A Year Ago Today.” And though he’s also lived in Central Pennsylvania and in the New York City area - and though Northeastern Pennsylvania has always been home - he decided last year to move to Nashville.

“I wanted to learn,” he says. “I wanted to further my career. I wanted to sit down with guitar players and songwriters that were better than me and that challenged me and that inspired me. And I wanted to become a better guitar player and a better songwriter. That was my real reason to come here. A lot of people come here and are straight out planning on ‘making it.’ My plan was a little bit different. I came here and kind of hung around in the background for a while and watched what's going on and got to meet a lot of people that were influences of mine. I got to take guitar lessons from some of my favorite players and got to do some recording. I just wanted learn. And I felt like it was the right move for my career as a musician.”

 Mike Mizwinski has found a welcome place for his music in Nashville 
Mizwinski says he received encouragement about the move from everyone, including Bob Lewis, another well-known NEPA musician that had also relocated to Nashville a few years prior.

“He's been a big part of me being down here,” says Mizwinski. “He’s over the house all the time and we've been writing together a lot. My manager had moved down here, too, and there were a few other people that I knew that were living down here. It just was like to the next step for me, and the right step, and I'm really glad I did it. I’ve really been loving it.”

Since his move to Nashville, Mizwinski has recorded two new songs - “Virginia and “High For Now” - at Gold Cassette recording studio, which is owned by multi-platinum country star Luke Combs. Working with Mizwinski on the music were producer Alex Gilson and guitarist Sol Philcox, who have also worked with Combs. And the tracks were mixed by Craig Alvin, who recently won the “Album of The Year” Grammy for his work on Kacey Musgraves.

“That’s been really exciting because obviously I hadn’t worked with Grammy-winning people before,” says Mizwinski. “We’re going to be releasing the songs soon. We’re just waiting on the mastering.”

Philcox is known as one of Nashville’s top session guitarists. Still, given his own capabilities, Mizwinski is asked why he felt the need to have a session player play guitar on his own original songs.

“That’s a funny story,” he says. “Sol and I barely even knew each other. He’s a mastermind in studio, but he didn't realize that I played lead guitar. He hired all these musicians and called in all of these all-star Nashville guys, and they charted out the songs. At the end of ‘Virginia,’ he said, ‘We’re just going to jam out the end,’ and he hits record, and we jam, and he plays a guitar solo, and I just kind of ripped into one after him, and that take is the one that we kept. It was the first time I ever actually did a live recording in the studio with five guys just letting it rip. The vocals. Everything. What you hear in the recording is five guys playing live in the studio. When we ended the song, Sol was like, ‘Holy crap. I didn’t know you played guitar like that!’ And since then - and it’s been a joy for me - me and Sol became buddies.”

The new friendship has helped open additional doors for Mizwinski, including performing live with Kashena Sampson, Emma White and Jenna Paulette. All three women appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of top-10 up and coming country artists.

“Sol has been sending me a lot of the work that he can’t do,” says Mizwinski. “He gets so many calls that it’s just insane. But I kind of quickly found out that was not what I want to do. Playing guitar for modern-country singers … it's just not my thing. It was a killer experience I can't say enough about how great it was to work with them, and their bands, and how nice they were. But it also made me realize that I really want to stay focused on my own music.”

Apparently, playing his own music in Nashville is also working out just fine.

“I got to play ‘New Faces Night’ at The Basement, which is one of the most prominent clubs in Nashville for the type of music I play,” he says. “It's a really, really big deal to get added onto ‘New Faces Night.’  After the owner saw our set,  I got a call, and he not only rebooked us, but he actually let me put my own bill together for my own night at The Basement. I played and headlined and I had to two other people come and play, too. It’s been great. My mindset coming down here has been strictly that I want to soak this all in and I want to purposely put myself around people that are that are better players, singers and writers than and I am.”

Even Mizwinski’s Nashville roommate, an artist named Boo Ray, is a talented musician. Stephen Ferrone, the former drummer for Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, appeared on his album and he’s been getting airplay on Sirius XM Radio. Mizwinski has also recorded with Boo Ray and, once again, has worked with some of the industry’s top producers. Boo Ray also introduced him to the legendary John Hiatt, with whom he now sometimes meets for lunch.

“That’s just crazy,” says Mizwinski.

Coming home

For the “MiZ plays Clapton” show, Mizwinski will be joined by his friend Justin Mazer, another NEPA native and dazzling guitarist who has also toured the country and has been featured in national publications such as Rolling Stone, Relix, and Guitar Player magazine. Mazur has also played some of the country’s top music festivals and is currently working and touring with Ryan Montbleau.

“We’ve got backup singers and we’ve got some other guests coming down,” says Mizwinski. “It's going to be phenomenal.”

Though Mizwinski is making great strides in Nashville, he adds that it’s nice to come home.

“It’s always great,” he says.  “I miss it. I'm one of these people that loves Northeast PA. I think it's a great place, and I miss being there. I miss home. I miss seeing the people.  Coming home feels good, and when I do come home to play I feel so lucky. People are so good to me and they're so supportive of me. I’m so lucky to have this dynamic, or this opportunity, to be able to come home every few months to play, and to have people coming out and supporting me. It's really cool. Even moving down here, people were really supportive of it and I can’t thank him enough.

“It's a great, music-loving community.”

WHAT: MiZ plays Clapton with special guest Justin Mazer
WHERE: River Street Jazz Café, Plains Township
WHEN: Wednesday, November 27, 10 p.m.
TICKETS: $10 in advance, $15 at the door
INFO: www.

Photos courtesy of Sam Watson. This story also appeared as the Weekender's cover story on November 20, 2019. The Weekender version can be found here:

Sunday, August 25, 2019

KISS kisses Pennsylvania goodbye in Hershey 

Cara Lombardo and Adam Nulton are all smiles before KISS’ recent show at Hersheypark Stadium.

Local fans share their thoughts on ‘End Of The Road’ tour


HERSHEY, PA - For the past 45 years, the state of Pennsylvania has been a frequent tour stop for the rock group KISS. Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, Harrisburg, Scranton, Erie, State College … the iconic band has played them all. And on Wednesday, with its show in Hershey, the group made what was probably its final stop in the Keystone State. And for the 20,000 fans at Hersheypark Stadium – many of whom had traveled from Northeastern Pennsylvania - it was apparently a most memorable KISS goodbye.

Jim Donnelly of Back Mountain, who had previously seen KISS about 15 times, was at the show in Hershey. Afterwards, he had no regrets about traveling 100 miles to see the band again.

“I’d seen a lot of the new show on YouTube, so I kind of had an idea of what it was going to look like, but it was just incredible in person,” said Donnelly. “The guys were on fire. There’s a lot of energy in this show. They’re saying it’s their last hurrah, and I thought it was incredible.”

Angela Thomas (right ) poses with a fellow
KISS fan at Hersheypark Stadium
Donnelly has been on the annual KISS Kruise four times and will be setting sail with the band again this fall, and thus he will see the group perform again in a smaller setting. But Wednesday’s show in Hershey will likely be the last time he saw a full KISS arena/stadium show.

“It’s kind of bittersweet,” he said. “I had some friends there, and we were kind of looking back, because there’s a very good chance it will be the last show that I’ll see them at the level. But we say, ‘Thanks for the memories.’ ”

Adam Nulton of Wilkes-Barre was also at the show on Wednesday, which he said was about his 10th KISS concert.   

“I saw them a few years back and I thought that was going to be my last chance to see them,” he said. “But I think they felt the fans still needed the music that they deliver. And I think a lot of the fans that are older want to share that experience with their children and say, 'This is what I grew up on. This is what you need to experience.’ And people definitely need to see the band before they call it a day.”

Steve Middaugh and his friend Bill Evanicki rock 'n roll all
nite at KISS' 'End of The Road" show in Hershey
Nulton made sure that his girlfriend, Cara Lombardo of Tamaqua, was one of those people. And thus she was at her first KISS show in Hershey.

“I was so excited,” said Lombardo. “I’d heard it’s an experience that you’ll never, ever forget. Since I was so late in first getting to see them, I kind of wish they’d stick around a little bit longer, but I get it. They’re getting older. But I feel blessed to have been able to see them before it’s really farewell.”

According to Curt Gooch and Jeff Suhs, the authors of “Kiss Alive Forever: The Complete Touring History,” KISS has played Pennsylvania 84 times. Additionally, they’ve played nine shows in Camden, N.J. – shows that were primarily aimed at the Philadelphia market. The band has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, are members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and as an America band, has more certified gold albums than any other group.  Steve Middaugh of Exeter saw his fifth KISS concert in Hershey on Wednesday. He said he’s been a loyal fan for most of his life and that it’s always been the band’s music that he enjoys the most. He added that he was not about to miss the “End Of The Road” tour.

“This is it,” said Middaugh. “That’s why I really wanted to get to the show. And I thought it was great. I really, really enjoyed it. We had a blast. The theatrics were so good and they played some of the stuff from the non-makeup era (“Lick It Up,” “Heaven’s On Fire,” “Crazy Crazy Nights”), and I liked that a lot. They really went all out.”

Traci Strungis of Mountaintop caught her third KISS show on Wednesday. She agreed with Middaugh about songs performed. 

Traci Strungis (left) and friends bid farewell to KISS in Hershey 
“The set list was really well thought out,” said Strungis. “It had a mix of old KISS and songs from different eras, so I think diehard fans were pleased, as well as first-time fans. It covered their whole timespan. And I liked that. I really love when they segue from ‘Lick It Up’ into ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ That’s awesome. The guitar work is incredible.  And the stage show was fantastic … with all of the pyrotechnics, fireworks and confetti. Paul Stanley flies out to the middle of the stadium on a zip-line so that you can be closer to him. It’s definitely a great visual show. 

“They looked so good and sounded so good that I think they should keep going,” she added. “But I realize that they would probably like to go out on top. And they are. I’ve seen them a few times before, and they just keep getting better. They were just phenomenal.”
Angela Thomas of Wilkes-Barre attended her second KISS show in Hershey. She said that KISS, live in concert, is still “The Hottest Band In The World.”

“I had a great time,” said Thomas. “Paul Stanley is my favorite and I just absolutely love seeing him. And there were so many people there that were there for the same reason that I was – for the love of their music. It was just, ‘Wow.’ I just had an amazing time.

“I get it,” said Thomas, when asked how she feels about this being KISS’ final tour. “They’ve been around for a long time. But hopefully it isn’t. They’re one of my favorite bands and I’d like to see them again and again.”

Dave Donati of Dupont has seen KISS in concert 22 times, including every tour since 1992. Wednesday’s show was his third time catching the band on this tour. Having seen every tour over the past 25 years, he ranks ‘End Of The Road’ as among the band’s best.

“I’ve enjoyed every tour, but this one certainly has more energy and more feel,” said Donati.  “The guys on stage have just given a new level of energy and have really given something back to the fans. There’s no opening band. There’s no foolin’ around. I saw the tours they did with Motley Cue and Def Leppard and I loved those tours, but I’m not a co-headline kind of guy. This is KISS’ show. Tommy Thayer has been on another level on this tour. I’ve watched him with awe.  And Gene has always been my favorite. That will never change. And I think he’s having a great time up there right now saying goodbye.

“I’m a concert junkie,” added Donati. “I’ve been to more than 100 concerts and nothing compares to a KISS concert. Nothing.”
Debra Ann Caruso channels her inner Starchild
for her 50th KISS concert in Hershey 

For Debra Ann Caruso of Jermyn, Wednesday’s show in Hershey was her 50th KISS concert and marked the fourth time she’s seen the band on the “End Of The Road” tour.  She says that at some point, during every show on this tour, she’s been brought to tears. She also feels it’s one of the band’s greatest tours, ever.

“The production is amazing,” said Caruso. “The first time I saw this stage was at Madison Square Garden. Then I went to Philly. Then I flew to Tennessee, to take my niece to see the show. And I’ve been blown away. I’ve been blown away by the production, and I’ve been blown away by how they’ve looked and how they’ve sounded. Paul Stanley is 67 and looks amazing. He’s miraculous to me. They’re just amazing.”

Despite perhaps being the band’s biggest fan in NEPA, Caruso says she’s OK with the group's decision to stop touring sometime next year.

“They deserve the break,” she said. “And their families, more than anything, deserve the break. But personally, I’m sad. I’m sad because it’s been a huge part of my life. When people ask me, ‘How are you still a fan after all of this time?’ and ‘How do you still get so excited and emotional?,’ I say that it’s the one singular thing that’s been in my heart and been in my life for as long as my love of family. I can’t imagine it going away. But I’m happy for them that they’re going out on such a high, and that they’re retiring with grace and on the top of their game.  And I feel like they’re doing that.”

(Alan K. Stout has covered rock and pop music in Northeastern Pennsylvania since 1992. His weekly radio show, “Music On The Menu,” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on The River. Reach him at