Forty-five years of progressive rock: An interview with Crack the Sky

Founding members John Palumbo and Rick Witkowski talk early struggles and triumphs, album covers before Buffalo show

crack-the-sky

Crack the Sky is still able to rock the stage 45 years into its touring career. 

The West Virginia-based progressive rock and art rock act has a career-spanning, rotating cast of 17 musicians and 18 studio albums, a catalog which sold out the Tralf Music Hall on Friday. While they never reached the heights of Prog-giants like Yes, Rush or King Crimson, they continue to satisfy their dedicated fanbase. 

Fronted by guitar players and vocalists John Palumbo and Rick Witkowski, the group’s sold-out show featured the legends diving into their 45-year back-catalogue.

 Before their show, we talked to Palumbo and Witkowski about what life is like for a band this far into its career.

Our interview, lightly edited for style and length, follows below:

The Spectrum: You’ve had a lot of different musicians come through the Crack the Sky door. Have you found it difficult to stay consistent?

John Palumbo: Not at all. We’ve kept the root: Ricky, myself and even [guitar player Bobby Hird] has been with us for 30 years or something.

Rick Witkowski: We do explore new territory, though. We were ‘living in reverse’ for a while, going back to try to find where we wanted to go in the future, so we were exploring old stuff we used to do. John’s heavily into the electronic thing, so we've really incorporated a lot of that stuff, but we're still trying to keep our guitar-rootsy prog-rocky guitar style.

TS: When you say you were going back, what exactly were you going back to in particular?

RW: Well John sent us a couple older songs, but we purposely got together with just bass, drums, guitars and worked on our parts as a team as opposed to all of us isolated.

It’s hard to have us all get together at one time and be in the same room due to our differences in locations, but when you’re in a room together it’s a different kind of dynamic. You get some of that synergy back up.

TS: Was there a point where the group had to tone down its sound or ideas at all?

RW: We had some crazy ideas early on. We had a 30-minute concept piece, but we were just signed to a label at that point. But this was back in the days when they would ‘develop artists.’ They’d say ‘do your thing,’ but it came to the point when we were at our third record and they were like ‘we need a hit single.’ 

That’s when it got a bit difficult. John ended up leaving the band for a bit, and it was just a struggle, trying to figure out how to get that hit while keeping your artistic integrity.

JP: It’s the reality of the business, you know. For me, it took some of the fun away. 

I remember we went to Canada, and I was knocked out by the fact that there were Mountie Police. I didn’t know they still existed. I wanted to do an entire Mountie Police concept record, but as soon as I brought that to the label, they were like, ‘I don’t think so.’

TS: What advice would you give to someone starting out in the business today? I read that the group had some label troubles very early on.

JP: Yeah, that was a mess. The thing is, it’s so different and difficult now. It’s hard to get paid, everything is streaming now. What I would tell them, honestly, is to pick another career. Enjoy what you do, keep playing, but don’t rely on it.

When we got in, it was a better time for the music business, and it was still difficult for us then, especially because we were not interested in following a straight path.

TS: Was there a specific red flag early on that made you realize this?

JP: Honestly, as soon as we hit the road. I was thinking ‘we’ve got an album out, time for a great tour,’ and what I didn’t realize is that they were going to send us to all these small bars.

RW: I remember our first stop on the tour. We played at a place called My Father’s Place in Long Island or New Jersey. It’s pretty prestigious and they had us open for the Earl Scruggs Revue. Earl Scruggs wrote the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme.

Anyway, if you’ve seen the movie “Blues Brothers,” they had a screen in front of them ‘cause they were getting tomatoes and beers thrown at them. We were wishing we’d had that screen for that show.

And this was right after our album was released nationally. This was our very first gig, and we were like ‘oh my god, what’s this?’ So that was a big red flag.

I have to say though, when we came to around Rochester, Baltimore and around there, people were coming up to us and they knew who we were. We were actually getting some airplay in those areas at the time, we had records in the record shops. 

We sold out the next time we came to Baltimore. We wish it would have happened everywhere, but that first moment someone came up to me and said, ‘are you Rick?’ it was like ‘my God, this is actually happening.’

TS: You said a lot has changed in the music industry since Crack the Sky started out, but what has stayed the same?

JP: In the business, I don’t think anything has stayed the same. It’s always so focused on, as it should be, on the youth.

RW: I think what has stayed the same, though, is the creativity. You know, kids getting together making music, but even that is changed now because it’s so isolated.

JP: Yeah, studios are folding because everybody’s got their own studio. You can just make one in a tiny room in your house now.

RW: I do think the creative process has stayed the same though. You get a spark of an idea, a vision for a song and you make it. The tools are different, but the art of it is the same.

TS: You opened for a lot of legendary acts back in the day like Rush. Do you remember any of those experiences in particular?

JP: Yeah, they were really kind. Unlike a lot of those major acts we would open for, they wouldn’t go on stage unless we had the proper amount of time to open and had our own gear on stage. They were terrific.

RW: We put a little snippet of “Tom Sawyer” into one of our songs we’re gonna play as a tribute to Neil Peart [of Rush].

TS: Do you think there’s any chance that rock as a genre can come back to the relevance that it was at 40 years ago?

RW: I still believe.

JP: I don’t know. You know, you have to consider the whole social scene when you say that. Kids are growing up in these incredibly high-tech environments now. I guess you could still find some gutsy stuff in punk clubs nowadays, but that would require you to find a punk club.

RW: There are some bands out there though like that band that sounds like Zeppelin, Greta Van Fleet. What’s old is new again, so you never know.

TS: Could you talk a bit about the artwork on “Ostrich?”

JP: [laughs] It kind of speaks for itself. I thought it would be neat to have a cover where an ostrich looks kinda like a badass, but truth be told, it’s an ostrich. When things get tough it’s gonna bury its head in the sand. [laughs again] You’ve got interesting questions.

RW: I think “Ostrich” is a bit of a sleeper record for us. I love “Man in the Box.” I used to say we had “Happy Happy Happy” before Pharrell. But I really do think there were some great tunes on that record.

The arts desk can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com

ALEX WHETHAM


Alex Whetham is an asst. arts editor for The Spectrum