Harley Flanagan - Live in Baltimore (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Harley Flanagan

Live in Baltimore (2018)

live show

Midway through the show, Harley Flanagan stopped, cracked that impish smile of his and said, “Even if you voted for Trump, I still love you!” He paused, and then added, “everyone’s entitled to one colossal fuck up in their lives!” Flanagan and his band then launched into an absolutely ripping version of the Cro-Mags classic “Hard Times.” Although the comment seemed to be a bit of devilish humor, it underscored both Flanagan’s February 15 show in Baltimore, as well as his career itself.

Flanagan’s made it no secret that his choices haven’t always been for the better in his life. In fact, his (excellent) 2016 album Cro-Mags focused on that concept entirely, with the cover prominently featuring an arm holding a knife. We won’t get into the scuffle here, but if you know Harley’s history, the cover has heavy significance. That being said, just as the cover of that album is as much as a “damn, look what I did” as it is a “Ha ha! Look what I did!” his solo show focused on his achievements across nearly forty years.

In fact, the show opened with a brand new, unreleased track off an upcoming EP, which Flanagan stated will benefit Dr. Know of the Bad Brains, who recently had serious health issues. Firmly in line with his most recent work, the song was fast, hard, and heavy, but retained the underlying swing and momentum of punk that so much other hardcore loses. As with the 2016 Cro-Mags album, the song ranked near Flanagan’s bets work and was more or less Age of Quarrel style without the mysticism and with a little more ferocity and bluntness. That is to say, it’s not so much “hardcore” as it is punk taken to the extreme. Follow up track, the newish “Don’t tell Me” slammed with the same energy and mania and underscored that Flanagan’s newish stuff really is some of his best work to date.

From there, the band shidfted through Flanagan’s discography. Rightfully so, there was a heavy emphasis on Age of Quarrel with mega-classics like “World Peace,” “Street Justice,” and the crusher of all crushers, “Malfunction.” But, Flanagan made it a point to not just dwell on one record, and pulled other tracks from across the band’s catalogue. At the audience’s request, the band launched into a down and dirty version of “Days of Confusion” off 1989’s Best Wishes. At least in my opinion, the late 80s and early 90s Cro-Mags work suffered somewhat from the production of the time, removing the grit and power of the songs and replacing them with sterile studio sound. Live, the band implied the same as Best Wishes tunes live were much, much more jagged and raw than their studio counterparts, and made the bridge between Age of Quarrel and Best Wishes seem much smaller than the recorded material suggests.

Of course, Harley being Harley, between nearly each song, he reveled in taking shots at a former bandmate. Near the end, he stated that he wanted to get the Cro-Mags back together for the fans, but his former bandmates vetoed the idea. Tellingly, though, he added that while he wanted to play more true Cro-Mags shows, he’d rather be on stage with his current band- Alpha Omega’s Gabby Abularach on guitar, Gary G-man Sullivan on drums (who has also played on Harley solo records and some Cro-Mags shows… also of P-Funk!), and a great new guitar player whose name I unfortunately missed. In true Harley style, he then jabbed, “So… in a sense, you could say that there are THREE Cro-Mags members on stage here tonight…”

No doubt, as the vitriol in that comment exemplified, Flanagan has had his ups and downs. One does wonder if he would have made different choices, had he known then what he knows now. On one side of the coin, he obviously could have avoided a lot of rough situations. But on the other, right now he’s making some of his best work to date and playing some fantastic live shows, and one must ask, is great art forged from great suffering?