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Brave Combo: A polka through history

Posted 5:48pm on Wednesday, Jun. 18, 2014

The 35-year history of Brave Combo is a little complicated, much like its music. Here’s an attempt to simplify it a bit (and we’re leaving out a few former members to do so).

1958: Andre Popp, under the name Elsa Popping and Her Pixieland Band, releases Delirium in Hi-Fi, a (mostly) instrumental album filled with sonic experiments in reverb and tape looping. A few years later, it will make a big impact on 10-year-old Carl Finch, who will go on to found Brave Combo.

Late-’60s/early ’70s: Carl and his friend Cliff cruise around Carl’s hometown of Texarkana in Cliff’s father’s car, which is stocked with 8-track tapes by Lawrence Welk and key members of Welk’s show, including accordion player Myron Floren, a legend in the polka world. Finch says he and Cliff listened to those tapes, but the polka epiphany was yet to come.

Circa 1978: Finch and Tim Walsh begin to form Brave Combo. Walsh is a sax player who wants to play Irish music but is not averse to polka. Finch, who says he began playing piano in first or second grade, wants to play polka music but is not averse to playing Irish music. They form Brave Combo with Finch on keyboards, accordion and guitar; Lyle Atkinson on bass; and Dave “Tito” Cameron on drums.

April 27, 1979: The band almost cancels its first gig, an outdoor show at North Texas State University, because of inclement weather. But it had told so many people about the gig that Finch and Walsh — sans Atkinson and Cameron — play a show before about 30 people in a dance studio on the now-University of North Texas campus.

1980: Brave Combo releases its first album, Polkamania, on its own Four Dots label.

1983: Walsh, wanting to focus on his laser-light show business and fearing what playing in a polka-rock band was doing to his hearing, leaves the band, as does Cameron. They still sit in with the band occasionally. Mitch Marine joins the band on drums, and Jeffrey Barnes signs on as the sax/woodwinds/harmonica player, eventually becoming the second-longest-running member after Finch.

1985: Atkinson leaves, and bassist Cenobio Xavier “Bubba” Hernandez joins the band. The Finch/Barnes/Marine/Hernandez lineup is generally considered the most popular version of the band.

1986: Then-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne uses Brave Combo’s music in his Texas-shot movie True Stories. (Finch, Hernandez and Barnes all can be seen in the movie, but you have to look quick.) Byrne is such a fan that Brave Combo plays at his post-wedding party. The band and/or its music appear in several other movies and TV shows; Christopher Walken sings along to BC’s version of Happy Wanderer in 2004’s Envy.

1987: Brave Combo releases a compilation, Musical Varieties, and a new album, Polkatharsis, on folk-blues label Rounder Records, for which it will record eight subsequent albums through the mid-’90s.

Late ’80s/early ’90s: Brave Combo does a couple of tours of Japan, where the group is more popular than in the States. Hernandez later tells the Star-Telegram that they were playing such packed houses that there was only one way to dance: “Up and down.”

1992: Mitch Marine leaves — and stays busy. The drummer will go on to play with several Dallas-based acts, including Tripping Daisy; with alt-rockers Smash Mouth; and, currently, with Dwight Yoakam. Percussionist Joe Cripps joins, and will remain with the band till 1999. And Danny O’Brien, the band’s current trumpeter, joins in 1993, becoming the third-longest-running member after Finch and Barnes.

1994: Alan Emert, the band’s current drummer, joins the group. Emert’s résumé also includes Ten Hands, one of the most popular DFW bands of the late ’80s/early ’90s.

1998: Simpsons creator Matt Groening invites Brave Combo to Los Angeles to play a party celebrating the 200th episode of the animated show. Groening will also use BC’s music in episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama.

1999: The band wins its first Grammy Award, best polka album, for Polkasonic (actually presented in 2000). Percussionist Cripps leaves, and joins a Latin jazz outfit called Norte de Havana.

September 2001: Brave Combo plays the last show at Fort Worth’s storied downtown nightclub Caravan of Dreams.

2005: The band wins its second Grammy Award, best polka album for Let’s Kiss.

2007: Bubba Hernandez leaves Brave Combo to pursue other projects and a solo career. He and his band, Los Super Vatos, have occasionally played on the same bills as Brave Combo.

2008: Brave Combo is the first act to play Arlington’s Levitt Pavilion. The band has played there every year since, opening the pavilion’s fall season — which it will do again Aug. 29.

2009: Little Jack Melody (aka Steve Carter) joins the band as its bassist. He’s a longtime friend of Finch’s and well-known for his own long-running local band, Little Jack Melody & His Young Turks.

2011: Drew Carey invites the band to play at his Improv-A-Ganza in Las Vegas. Also: Fort Worth accordion wiz Ginny Mac, whose voice has been compared to Patsy Cline’s, joins the band briefly. Mac, who is no longer a member, gigs frequently in North Texas; according to her website, she’ll be performing at the Independence Day celebration at Fred’s Texas Cafe.

2014: Brave Combo celebrates its 35th anniversary with gigs in Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin and Denton — none of which fall on the exact date of the anniversary.

Sources: DFW.com archives, Brave Combo: The Official Website (www.brave.com), AllMusic.com, bubbahernandez.com, www.arkansasonline.com

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