When Crack the Sky guitarist Rick Witkowski recalls the first time the band played Baltimore, his enthusiasm is palpable — as if the show happened just last night and not in the mid-1970s.
"We walked into the club and got a standing ovation before we played one note," the 58-year-old remembers. "It was just really weird. People knew my name!"
The West Virginia-rooted progressive rock act had been on a fruitless tour, supporting a pretty great debut LP that was receiving some of its most concentrated radio play in, of all places, Baltimore. Word spread and, as Witkowski explains, "The next time we came to town, it was bigger and bigger venues. It was like it was supposed to happen nationwide when bands break. It happened in Baltimore that way, it just didn't happen everywhere." Well, why not?
It's a question that Baltimore-area rock fans have been asking throughout Crack the Sky's nearly four-decade-long history — a saga replete with personnel changes, hiatuses and albums ranging from classic to full-on dud. When the six-piece outfit and its Crack Pack Horns make their Rams Head Live debut on Saturday, the crowd will treat tunes such as "Surf City," "Hot Razors in My Heart" and "Skin Deep" like No. 1 hits that never were. Five hours away from its hometown, Crack the Sky found its hometown crowd.
Frontman and songwriter John Palumbo, once the source of Crack's potential, is quick to take the blame for why the band didn't become, say, Genesis. "First of all," he says, "Crack the Sky imploded because of me. When it was time to do a third record, I was so disillusioned and disgusted and still young enough to not take responsibility for anything and just blame everybody."
Palumbo, 60, speaking from his home outside Philadelphia, doesn't seem like the sort of guy who'd cause trouble; in fact, he seems precisely like the type of guy you'd want to play in a rock band with. He's earthy and wise and he laughs often. But as Witkowski says with a chuckle, this is John 2.0 — "the kinder, gentler John Palumbo."
In the years leading up to that third studio record, Palumbo became increasingly pompous, his ego boosted by gushing critics in outlets like Rolling Stone and The New York Times. Even if he wasn't delivering smash hits, he was a savvy, cynical lyricist and a songwriter who matched the musicianship of prog-rock with a pop sense gleaned from the Beatles. Unfortunately, he knew it. "I thought I was the next big deal," he concedes. "And I absolutely was probably a big, big pain."
Palumbo canceled shows when he thought the venue was beneath him, talked trash about other acts from the stage and started to fancy himself a pop intellectual, Witkowski recalls. He became interested in Buddhism and cut meat out of his diet, eating mostly, as Palumbo says, Twinkies and salad. "I was very sick," Palumbo says, adding that Crack's record label, Lifesong, put him in the hospital. Needless to say, he quit the band before the third album was realized.
"It was unbelievably bad timing," Witkowski says. Finally, just when Palumbo threw in the towel, the band's label struck a distribution deal with CBS. Crack the Sky, with Palumbo's replacement, Gary Lee Chappell, released the surprisingly strong "Safety in Numbers" in 1978 and toured with more appropriate bands. Palumbo heard the album at the record shop he worked at. "I was jealous," he says. "I should've stuck around."
The following years saw Crack the Sky shift through various incarnations. On 1980's excellent, New Wave-ish "White Music," Crack the Sky was essentially a studio vehicle for Palumbo and Witkowski. (Some of Palumbo's most successful '80s material he co-wrote with and for Kix, including the ballad "Don't Close Your Eyes.")
More albums, downtime and reunions followed, and today Crack the Sky enjoys a satisfied part-time existence. The band plays about four shows a year, mostly in the Baltimore area, focusing on early material. Its recent studio albums, including last year's ambitious, darkly political "Machine," were assembled piecemeal in members' home studios.
Palumbo is writing and illustrating graphic novels and talking politics on Internet radio. Witkowski lives in Weirton, W.Va., and produces out of his studio there; his credits include music for Nickelodeon, VH1 and the buzzed-about TV show "Bar Karma."
But Crack the Sky, and its fans, are always something to look forward to. "I'm just so thankful," says Witkowski. "I don't know if it'll be a sold-out house, but I know that there'll be a good number of people there, and they truly love those songs. And I have to pinch myself."
• Concert info: Crack the Sky's Rams Head Live debut
If you go
Crack the Sky performs Saturday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place in Power Plant Live. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 the day of the show. Call 410-244-1131 or go to ramsheadlive.com.