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Band takes another crack at the biz

| Wednesday, July 16, 2008

John Palumbo admits it: Crack the Sky could have been huge. If not for his decision to leave the band in the late 1970s just after it signed with CBS Records out of Weirton, W.Va., Palumbo could be looking at an entirely different history.

Instead, irritated by record company demands that a couple of radio-friendly songs be added to the group's third album, Palumbo decided to leave, despite the wishes of the rest of the group.

"They kind of sided with the label, and they were right," Palumbo says. "I was completely off my rocker. ... We needed to write at least one or two straight-out rock 'n' roll songs that would just get over and score. Like a little sissy man, I quit. I said 'I'm going to take my ball and go home.' "

That's not to say Crack the Sky, which performs Saturday at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side, was a lock for greatness given the fickle nature of the music business. But listening to the band's material 30 years later, it's not hard to imagine Crack the Sky carving out a long and influential path in American music. The band's sound, to this day, remains unique and original in its aesthetic, inhabiting uncharted territory by way of a grandness that at times is operatic in scope. Most called it prog-rock, but that seems too shallow, too limiting, for a band that falls somewhere between Pink Floyd and King Crimson.

The band's first two albums, a self-titled release and "Animal Notes," met with critical acclaim. But when it came time to move up to the majors, Palumbo balked.

"You gotta understand something: We came from West Virginia, clueless about everything," he says. "Not the clue of a clue of what we were going to walk into in New York, and against those kind of odds, we did very well. But no one could prepare you for that. When Rolling Stone made their whole hoopla about it (the 1975 self-titled album was the magazine's debut of the year), my ego exploded. I was walking around like a balloon head. So it was not the right time."

But now ... now, just maybe, the time is right. Palumbo, along with original members Joe D'Amico (drums), Joey Macre (bass) and Rick Witkowski (guitar), have released "The Sale." Also featuring guitarist Bobby Hird and Glenn Workmann on keyboards, the album came about when Macre and Palumbo started talking after 20 years of silence. The pair worked on another project, the Precious Brothers, which Palumbo describes as having a ZZ Top sound.

When Macre got wind of other, more Crack-like songs Palumbo was working on, he wanted in. So did Witkowski and D'Amico, and tracks were sent out via the Internet.

Listening to "The Sale," no one would ever know the album was assembled in such a piecemeal manner, so seamless is the music.

"When Joe's parts came in, when guitar parts came in, I had probably next to nothing to say," Palumbo says. "They were right on. To do that from a distance is not so hard when everybody knows what the other person is thinking."

That synchronicity has rarely been heard over the last two decades. Aside from annual gigs in Baltimore, the nexus of Crack the Sky popularity, the band has rarely performed live; when it has, Palumbo and Witkowski have been the sole original members.

But now, with the release of "The Sale," and Macre and D'Amico back in the fold, there's a cautious optimism. The band can do anything it wants, given that it doesn't have to worry about earning radio airplay or keep in good standing with a record company.

"Who knows• It could be time," Palumbo says, noting that the band's catalog remains musically and lyrically relevant. "And I'm not trying to suggest that I was so brilliantly ahead of my time and the world's finally catching up with me. Not at all. Just maybe, it's the right time. And I know from a maturation standpoint, yeah, it would be the right time for us, at least to go have fun for awhile and make a living out of it. I think that's all we're looking to do."

Additional Information:

Crack the Sky

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Admission: $25

Where: New Hazlett Theater, North Side

Details: 412-320-4610

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