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Brave Combo: Still rockin’ the polka after all these years

Brave Combo 35th

Anniversary Extravaganza!

9 p.m. Saturday (doors open at 8)

Live Oak Music Hall & Lounge

1311 Lipscomb St., Fort Worth

$12

817-926-0968

www.theliveoak.com


Posted 6:14pm on Wednesday, Jun. 18, 2014

On a mild June afternoon in Lewisville, Brave Combo has just completed its sound check and some of the band members wander off for a preshow drink. After thousands of outdoor concerts together, they’ve got this.

But founder Carl Finch keeps working on the set list, a mad scientist mixing up the formula for another explosive “nuclear polka” party.

When Brave Combo takes the stage, the crowd is initially a little reserved, except for a handful of children who’ve been hula-hooping down front since the sound check. Finch, the 62-year-old ringleader whose shoulder-length hair hangs down from his red top hat, loudly asks them: “Are you ready to polka?!?”

With a few stomps of his right foot, he launches into a schottische called Don’t Let Go. Sax/clarinet player Jeffrey Barnes and trumpeter Danny O’Brien harmonize on their horns. Bass player Steve Carter, better known as Little Jack Melody, and drummer Alan Emert provide tight rhythms.

And before you know it, the Medical Center of Lewisville’s Grand Theater is rockin’.

A polka-inflected mash-up of the drinking anthem Tequila and the psychedelic-rock hit Pushin’ Too Hard brings more dancers out of their seats. So does a twist on The Twist. When Finch — who plays keyboard, accordion and guitar — calls for a conga line, it gets so long it spills out into a nearby street.

Brave Combo and its powerful brand of polka is working its magic, having blasted through every last shred of inhibition.

“People make fun of me,” says Shelby Holt, a fan who has followed Brave Combo for 20 years and was at the Lewisville show. “ ‘Polka? What’s that?’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no — this is not just polka. This is like hippie polka. This is two-time Grammy Award-winning polka. This is more than polka. This is a lifestyle.’ 

Brave Combo, which struck its first funky notes 35 years ago in Denton, has become one of the happy facts of life in North Texas. From Watauga to West, Euless to Ennis, you’d be hard-pressed to find a small-town festival where the group hasn’t hokey polka’d over the years.

“There’s some kind of secret sauce that Carl and the band have that makes you feel good in a way that other things don’t,” says Bart Weiss, director of the Dallas Video Festival, who has been working on a Brave Combo documentary he hopes to finish in 2015. “Many people have inhibitions about dancing, like, ‘Oh, I’ll just watch all those other people dance.’ But somehow, at a Brave Combo show, you can just sort of get up and feel good. And somehow, as you’re moving around, you realize that these are really incredible performers.”

Brave Combo’s unpredictability and expert musicianship have earned it a cult following (David Byrne and Matt Groening are among high-profile fans). Plus a couple of Grammys and international acclaim.

Three decades on, there’s a temptation to think of Brave Combo as a novelty band, especially when it does things like perform Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze as a polka or turn out its trademark, manic blues-rock rendition of the hokey pokey (with such lines as “You put your eyes in/you put your eyes out”). But through various lineup changes, Finch has kept the musicality high and his unusual vision going.

And that vision, says Finch, is that everything’s sacred — and nothing’s sacred.

“We look at all the music without judgment,” he says. “We can’t make everything so sacred that we can’t mess with it. We’re gonna screw with it all.”

During its shows, Brave Combo moves through a variety of styles — polka and punk, tangos, cha-chas, cumbia, country, ska, rock and blues, just to name a few.

Anything to keep the music fresh, and the party going.

“I’m playing with great musicians,” says Finch, “so I know that musically if we can get the sound the way we want it and we’re onstage, I have that opportunity to play music for that amount of time. And that always turns me on.”

‘Strange’ beginnings

Brave Combo’s first gig, an outdoor show on April 27, 1979, at the Lyceum amphitheater at North Texas State (now UNT), was almost canceled because of inclement weather. Finch and Tim Walsh, the band’s original sax player, wound up playing for about 30 hardcore polka fans in a campus dance studio. The other original members, bassist Lyle Atkinson and drummer Dave “Tito” Cameron, took a pass.

It was an inauspicious but fitting start for a band that would develop a grassroots following.

Polka music wasn’t necessarily Finch’s first choice when he decided he wanted to be a musician, playing piano as early as first or second grade. But after playing with a number of bands and working as a DJ in a country-western club, he wandered into a Woolworth’s one day and was struck by the dozens of polka records he found in the budget bin.

Attracted by the strange covers, he bought a bunch, took them home and started playing them. He became obsessed with the bouncy folk music that most Americans associated with Lawrence Welk.

Punk and new wave had also begun to rise up in the late ’70s, so Finch said the idea of a “nuclear polka” band didn’t seem all that far-fetched.

“Communities of people were building that were wanting to hear something besides Top 40 radio,” Finch says. “They want live music, they want to go out and find it, they want to hear something that they’ve never heard before.”

It was “shockingly easy” to recruit three musicians for the band, Finch said. He started with Walsh, who was into traditional Irish and British music but willing to play polkas.

“I’d played nothing but Irish music for two or three years,” Walsh says. “I’d got my technique and memorization abilities to the point where I could just pick up the clarinet and start learning these new polka tunes. It was a foreign country for me, but when Carl and I got together and he started playing piano and I started playing clarinet, it really seemed like a natural thing for us to do.”

Finch and Walsh added Atkinson on bass; he was the only one who’d previously played in a polka band. And then drummer Cameron, who was into polka-esque Tejano music.

They dubbed themselves Brave Combo, because, Finch says now, “we would be playing polkas and other unexpected styles in rock ’n’ roll venues,” and that was brave. “ ‘Combo’ because, at the time, it was the squarest word which meant band or group.”

Soon enough, the hip-to-be-square band was getting noticed.

The guys played several post-play shows at Fort Worth’s Hip Pocket Theatre, where Finch says they encountered a more than receptive hippie audience.

Longtime Fort Worth saxophonist/singer Johnny Reno, who was Chris Isaak’s sax player for several years, was impressed, too. He was still a member of the Fort Worth jump-blues outfit the Juke Jumpers when he first saw Brave Combo.

“Doing a polka version of [the Doors’] People Are Strange. I remember hearing that and going, ‘Man, that was really strange — and well-played.’ I was like, these guys are really good, and doing something different,” says Reno. “I told the guys in the Juke Jumpers, and Sumter [Bruton] went over there and went, ‘Wow, these guys are great.’ 

(“Thank God for the Doors,” Finch says. “I’ve gotten so much mileage out of People Are Strange as a hora.”)

Reno and Bruton started spreading the word about Brave Combo among their musician friends. Fort Worth-bred writer Joe Nick Patoski, who is Reno’s brother-in-law, was stringing for Rolling Stone at the time and landed the band its first national press, with an item in the magazine’s gossipy “Random Notes” pages.

“It got quite a bit of buzz, this little-bitty item,” says Patoski, who’s now based in the Austin area. “A nuclear polka band? That’s just weird.”

By the mid-’80s, when the band consisted of Finch, Barnes, bassist Bubba Hernandez and drummer Mitch Marine, Brave Combo was hitting its stride. It had played such punk/new-wave-scene clubs as New York’s Mudd Club and Danceteria. (Finch says it didn’t hurt that a lot of people thought the band was actually from Austin, which is why they always end their shows saying that they’re from Denton.)

David Byrne became a fan, and he used the band in his 1986 movie True Stories. (The group also performed at Byrne’s wedding.) Brave Combo won Grammys for 1999’s Polkasonic and 2004’s Let’s Kiss, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening invited the band to play at a party celebrating the 200th episode of the animated sitcom (Groening has also used the music in episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama).

That period also brought Brave Combo’s unique music to other parts of the world, with tours of Europe and Japan.

“That’s our only taste of real stardom, on a big scale, going to Japan,” Finch says. “One tour, the [crew] had just been out with Sting. Now they’re with Brave Combo, and then they were going out with George Harrison and Eric Clapton. For two weeks it was like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ 

But the band never became a household name, and Finch says that still works to their advantage.

“I think that’s a little bit of the secret to our longevity,” Finch says. “We became sort of a big deal in an underground sense. … But there’s a lot of people who haven’t heard us, so we always have opportunities to reach new people.”

Outside chances

They find those new, receptive audiences not necessarily at smoke-filled music clubs anymore, but out in the light of day, at a growing roster of outdoor festivals.

Brave Combo still plays occasional club dates — in addition to a show Saturday at Live Oak Music Hall in Fort Worth, its other anniversary shows include a July 19 date at Dallas’ Poor David’s Pub and a September stop at Dan’s Silverleaf in Denton. But those opportunities have become fewer and fewer. Some clubs that used to be regular gigs for the band, such as Arlington’s Fatso’s and Fort Worth’s Caravan of Dreams (where Brave Combo played the last show) are gone; others just aren’t the right fit anymore.

“I know everybody says ‘good ol’ days,’ ” Finch says. “But it’s a lot harder now than it was 35 years ago. The highways weren’t as crowded. … In those days, there was an automatic network of alternative bands, and we fit comfortably within that punk network, and in those days we got a lot of support from that network around the country. We could find places to play, ’cause we were not normal, and we really did fit that world.”

But the brave new world for Brave Combo has become community festivals, where the band is as much a fixture as strollers and corn dogs. Brave Combo has played so many that when Finch is asked if the band has played every town in North Texas, he has to ponder the question a bit.

“I’m so accustomed to things like [Watauga Fest],” Finch says. “They’re everywhere. We play a ton of those in North Texas. So it’s not like the people that are going to see us in Forney are going to drive to Watauga. Those become so specific for those towns. These things are popping up everywhere.”

And when Oktoberfest season rolls around, everyone seems to want a piece of Brave Combo.

“We need every month to be September or October,” Finch says, “That’s exploding for us. We are turning work down. There’s only one Friday a weekend, only one Saturday, only one Sunday. And sometimes gigs are a thousand miles apart. But if you look at our schedule in August, there’s a lot of double-booked dates. If something’s only two or three hours apart [from another show], we might try to get to it.”

The band travels in its own simple white van; the gear is in the back and, Finch says, Emert is usually toward the back, sleeping, while Barnes does sudoku-like puzzles and the others talk.

Gigs can pay anywhere from $500 for a small club show to $10,000 for private out-of-town gigs, Finch says. And the band does still hit the road: The weekend before the June 10 show in Lewisville, Brave Combo had played two nights at the Sugar Creek Slavic Festival in the Kansas City area, and followed that with a show at the Wichita-area Bartlett Auditorium (run by former Dixie Chick Robin Macy). Finch says another European tour is possible in the near future. And although the schedule is heavy with Texas dates (including Aug. 29 at Arlington’s Levitt Pavilion, where Brave Combo played the opening show in 2008), there’s a July swing through Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska and Arkansas.

But the big fests in North Texas for the band are the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival in April, the National Polka Festival in Ennis in May, and Westfest, in the Czech town of West, on Labor Day Weekend.

John Hurtick, president of the board of directors of Westfest, says that Brave Combo has become the most in-demand band at the festival. But it wasn’t even on the schedule when it first played the fest.

“They came to us in about 1980, I guess out of college,” Hurtick says. “They just came to the festival and found me and some of the organizers and said that they would like to play. We told them that we booked our bands a few months in advance, and we didn’t have a stage for them, and we really couldn’t use ’em.”

The band said it would play for anything if it could just find a place to plug in instruments. Hurtick showed the guys a power pole where they could plug in. An hour later, Hurtick said, Brave Combo had drawn a tremendous crowd, so organizers offered them $100 to play another hour. The crowd grew. Another hour was added, with the band passing the hat. It was offered a regular paying gig the next year.

That was a key moment in the band’s history.

“Westfest was a big deal for them early on,” Weiss, the documentarian, says. “They were worried that they wouldn’t be accepted because they were not traditional polka players, but the first year they did really well. Now they’re sort of the biggest thing there. Doing Westfest and the Polka Festival in Ennis — these are important to show that the polka community totally accepts what they do, even if they change things a little bit.”

Hurtick says that Brave Combo helped draw younger people to Westfest, and eventually became the highest-paid band there.

“It almost became the Brave Combo Festival through the years,” Hurtick says. “They’ve been very loyal to us. They’ve had opportunities to play other places Labor Day weekend for more money, but they’ve been loyal.”

That loyalty became more important in 2013, after the April 17 explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. that killed 15 people, including five West volunteer firefighters. Westfest organizers wanted the festival to go on, to help bring a sense of normalcy to the community.

“You really almost have to say Westfest and Brave Combo in the same sentence,” Hurtick says. “They’re just one and the same almost. So it was very important for them to be here. And they were very adamant about doing it, and wanted to do whatever they could to help.”

Always something

Like any band that has been together for more than a few years, Brave Combo faces its own set of challenges.

“A band is a pressure cooker, a common-goal cauldron of disparate personalities and idiosyncrasies, on constant low heat,” bassist Carter says in an email. “Things do occasionally boil over. But I really like this collection of characters and characteristics. Great musicians all around, quirky senses of humor, burnished by years in common trenches. They’re some of my favorite people.”

At 62, Finch is the godfather of the band and its only original member. But Barnes, also 62, has been with Brave Combo for more than 30 years. O’Brien and Emert, both of whom joined in the early ’90s, are in their late 40s. Carter has only been with the band since 2009, but his own group, Little Jack Melody and His Young Turks, came up around the same time as Brave Combo and was the opening act for several Brave Combo gigs.

“Carl has to wear a lot of hats — musical direction, conceptualizing, running rehearsals, short-term and long-term strategizing, and buck-stops-here responsibility,” Carter says. “It’s ultimately his vision, his project. I think he has a strong perfectionist streak, which can be both a great strength and a source of irritation.”

But when the band is onstage, all of that becomes irrelevant, says Barnes.

“There’s a certain amount of adrenaline,” he says, “but I think it’s the music, actually. It’s fun, you know? And demanding. You can’t keep it down and play this stuff. It’s actual physical exertion.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Xmx3n_v31k

Finch says he expects the band to keep going; with a lineup that has been together this long, there’s occasional talk of a member leaving. But Finch says that every time he hears that talk, he knows that something will bring them back.

“As the years have gone by, we’ve had waves of success that have propelled us,” Finch says. “There’s always been this worm at the end of the line dangling: ‘Here’s something to do, here’s something to do, here’s something to do.’ So there’s always been that three-months-away, six-months-away, a-year-away something to live for or to work toward.

“Now we’re actually a business, and we’re making some of it happen on our own now,” he continues. “We’re structuring it, we’re looking further ahead, how do we continue to get opportunities and make money. It was not far along into the process before we actually thought, ‘Wow, we’re going to be doing it awhile, I guess.’ 

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872 Twitter: @rphilpot Staff writer Bill Hanna contributed to this report.

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