Brave Combo not only challenges the feet with a dare-to-dance attitude pouring from the stage, but their music challenges the mind, mixing global genres including mambo, meringue, waltz, zydeco, classical, cha cha, the blues—and of course, polka. Led by charismatic founder and front-man Carl Finch, the group holds a long-time tradition of headlining the closing show at Denton’s annual Arts and Jazz Festival. The Sunday night performance at this year’s event will be no exception.
Brave Combo is known for pushing musical limits, successfully riding the line between comedy and mastery, giving performances that are a mix of dancing fun and serious musicianship while living up to their famous lyricized motto: “Do something different.”
Their signature element is use of the once un-cool accordion (sometimes two or three of them), traditionally played by Finch and, more recently, by Ginny Mac, the group’s newest member who plays her full-size instrument with charisma.
Established in Denton in 1979, the group has been credited with popularizing the instrument and the Polka sound, while borrowing from—and often completely re-inventing—an array of American and non-American genres. Rock, folk, country, funk, and R&B, to name a few, collide with international influences to create Brave Combo’s “nuclear” polka sound.
While Polka traditionally suffers a bad rap, for Finch it is the fine line between honoring and judging music you encounter—between a person’s intentions and what they actually accomplished—that is worth walking. Considering polka, which is traditionally used in a comical setting, the question tends to arise: is this band just about the kitsch?
“The kitsch thing required somebody to be judgmental,” Finch said in a preview of Bart Weiss and Mark Birnbaum’s forthcoming documentary about Brave Combo. “It’s easy to find an audience when you’re just throwing that stuff out there.”
More difficult perhaps is gaining respect by combining a light-hearted, vapidly experimental style with an impressive array of musical talent on tens of instruments, forming a creative mesh of styles, genres, and performances that touches many cultures and settings.
“Whatever you do exercise your ability to be in a situation and to approach it with no judgmental attitude at all,” Finch said. “The more you do that, the more you are capable of mastering the situation. Doing that for me led me to polka in a most cosmic way.”
Brave Combo’s recognitions include two Grammy awards and seven total nominations, and they have a staggering career of over 30 releases, nine foreign releases, and various assorted projects and compilations. Notable performances include the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, David Byrne’s wedding reception, and a virtual performance at an Oktoberfest celebration in a 2004 episode of The Simpsons.
Recordings for TV include a commercial for National Geographic, the theme song for the ESPN series, Bowling Night, and the opening theme song for Click and Clack’s As the Wrench Turns, among others. Brave Combo in the movies includes the 1995 film Late Bloomers, David Byrne’s True Stories, the Mathew Perry/Salma Hayek Fools Rush In, and a 1999 Academy award winning short documentary, The Personals: Improvisations On Romance In The Golden Years.
The title of most eclectic band to ever come from Denton is not to be taken lightly, considering the extent of weirdness that grows in a city increasingly more well-known for its thriving D.I.Y. music scene. Brave Combo, whose debut show was in a creative studio at North Texas State University in 1979 (according to former reed-man Tim Walsh’s diary from the early years of Brave Combo, now available on the band’s website), has maintained their home-base in Denton despite national and international recognition.
The band’s members, past and present, exude a degree of personal rebellion, abandon of traditional rules, and musical exploration that resonates with their fans. Sounds pouring from the speakers are skilled creations that may move from a Polka to a Rhumba, from Waltz into rock, or from the ultimately original to the classic cover within a single song, and the 6-member group is known for a surprisingly rich, sonic live sound.
Band members include Finch, who provides lead guitar, vocals, keyboards, and accordion; long-time member Jeffrey Barnes—known for his elaborate performance wardrobe—whose musical mastery includes saxophone, harmonica, flute, and an array of other reeds and woodwinds; Danny O’Brien, trumpet and vocals; Little Jack Melody, bass guitar; Alan Emert, drums; and Ginny Mac, who joined the band in 2011 and has been playing accordion since the age of seven.
With Brave Combo’s musical repertoire, they often need different players to provide certain densities of a particular sound. The 2013 Jazz Festival performance will feature two special guest musicians: Danny Jerabeck, of Copper Box, a good friend and Polka buddy with whom Finch just celebrated release of their side project, The Nice Musics. Jerabeck plays button box accordion (an accordion with no keys) and trombone and is a sort of sixth member of Brave Combo, Finch said. Mike Dillon, of the Dead Kenny G’s, will bring on the groove with an array of percussion sounds.
“Of course we’ve got a full arsenal of our regular crazy stuff to unleash at the Jazz Festival. We always try to give our good friends in Denton a quality show, and we appreciate all the people who come out and all the young people go berserk,” Finch said. “But it’s also for a lot of people a different thing from Brave Combo – it’s a kind of family reunion where we’re the centerpiece, we’re the band that spans the generations. This is the town that has nurtured us.”
Crowds ready to dance and experience the many flavors of music and dance that make Brave Combo a Denton favorite can attend the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival Sunday evening performance, where Brave Combo is sure to “Do Something Different.”
(Originally published in the Denton Record-Chronicle 2013 Jazzfest tab.)