There was a point in the middle of the Cro-Mags set at Melrose Ballroom, in Queens, last Thursday where I recalled something frontman Harley Flanagan told me when we talked about his band’s evolution for a recent piece in the Voice.
“We’re definitely more jazz-fusion/hardcore than traditional hardcore or metal,” he said. “We’re definitely way out there, like Return to Forever on crystal meth or something. [Laughs] Just crazy Mahavishnu [Orchestra] on PCP. I try to give them what they want and what they expect, but I’m always trying to push it to another place. That’s what makes it fun for me.”
The 55-year-old bassist, now more than four decades into this musical journey, succeeded on all counts, and there were apparently no complaints from the sold-out crowd of approximately 1,000 who saw the seminal New York Hardcore band run through a brisk 40-minute set above opening act Total Chaos and below headliners The Exploited.
Of course, 40 minutes isn’t enough time for either the band or the Cro-Mags faithful (Flanagan told us after the show that “about an hour” is ideal) but, as Flanagan pointed out, “I’d rather leave them hungry than overfeed them.”
So, what transpired after the opening strains of “We Gotta Know” was a tight set mixing classics from the 80s with material written and recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the title track of the EP 2020. “We’re still here,” barked Flanagan, and he couldn’t have been more accurate, as things felt as normal as they could be in an age far removed from the last time he had taken the stage in front of a live audience—before we got introduced to the “new normal.”
Security was tight for a venue not used to presenting hardcore punk shows, and despite warnings not to jump on the stage, one brave soul made it up there before leaping back into the pit, which was active but not unruly—highlighted by a fan sitting on a friend’s shoulders while waving the Ukraine flag and drawing acknowledgment from Flanagan. Meanwhile, the crowd in front pushed as far as they could to get to the stage, and Flanagan and his crew kept them engaged throughout, which was a remarkable feat given that the New Yorker is the only member of the original band touring under the Cro-Mags name. (Fans are well aware of the lineup changes over the years, and dissect everything online. When Rocky George, a guitarist for the band in recent years, was unable to make this tour, fans posted, “Where’s Rocky?”)
“We’re not a nostalgia band,” Flanagan said to the crowd, and that may be the secret to the quartet sounding more vibrant than ever. Longtime drummer Garry Sullivan towers over his simple drum kit and looks like he could walk through walls, with the subsequent thunder keeping everything moving, whether at a rapid-fire pace or with a more measured attack. Newcomers to the touring band, guitarists Dominic Dibenedetto and Hector Guzman, are a perfect fit and play off each other like old pros who have been side by side for years.
As for Flanagan, he’s as potent a musical force as he’s ever been, which leads back to the jazz-fusion reference, because in comparing this band to many of its peers, both past and present, the musicianship is a clear step above, something evident throughout their Queens set—only the second gig of a tour that will take them through the summer. It’s not bludgeoning for the sake of bludgeoning. There are dynamics in terms of pace and extended instrumental sections, with yet enough force to remind you of where you are—“This is a punk rock show,” yelled one 59-year-old gentleman.
Yes, we’re still here. ❖