I first saw Brave Combo in 1982 or so… a good thirty years ago. I had an evening out with a friend and I drove past Nick’s Uptown. Nick’s was a live music venue, long gone now, near where I lived on lower Greenville. It was the location of the famous Ice Machine in the Desert. The marquee promised “Brave Combo with Beto y los Fairlanes.”
That looked irresistible, though I had never heard of either band. With names like that, though, they had to be great.
They were/are a “Nuclear Polka Band.” Their music defies any kind of category.
Here’s what they say on their website:
Trying to describe Brave Combo’s music requires a pretty extensive vocabulary – at least when it comes to musical styles. For the past three decades the Denton, Texas based quintet has perfected a world music mix that includes salsa, meringue, rock, cumbia, conjunto, polka, zydeco, classical, cha cha, the blues and more. They are America’s Premier Dance band and a rollicking, rocking, rhythmic global journey — offering what one critic recently wrote, “Even if you come for the party, you’ll leave with something of a musical education.”
That’s pretty good – a better description than I can come up with.
Brave Combo is a polka/rock band based in Denton, Texas. Founded in 1979 by guitarist/keyboardist/accordionist Carl Finch, they have been a prominent fixture in the Texas music scene for more than twenty-five years. Their music, both originals and covers, incorporates a number of dance styles, mostly polka, but also rumba, cha-cha-cha, choro, samba, two-step, cumbia, charanga, merengue, etc.
As part of their perceived artistic mission to expand the musical tastes of their listeners, they have often played and recorded covers of well-known songs in a style radically different from the original versions. Examples include polka versions of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and The Doors’ “People are Strange”, The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as a cha-cha, and “Sixteen Tons” as a cumbia. While their records may have a sense of humor, they are played straight and not usually considered joke or novelty records.
I still remember from 1982 the band playing Lady of Spain or some other dreary old chestnut on the accordion; then, all of a sudden, breaking into a series of odd, distinctive chords. It was In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the old Iron Butterfly tune, the distinctive music of my early youth, the one song every Junior High Sock Hop Local Garage Band had to play, the one where you had to get a good girl to dance with because it was so long. I had heard it at so many youth rec center dances, those chords will always bring back memories of the smell of hundreds of teenage sweaty sock feet.
I had heard that song a thousand times, it took up half of an entire eight track tape, but I had never heard it played on an accordion.
What is so important and impressive about Brave Combo is that they are so very skilled, practiced, and skilled musicians. They have won two Grammy Awards. They were David Byrne’s wedding band. They have been on The Simpsons. When they play the Hokey Pokey… they are serious about it. They work very hard to play the best damn Hokey Pokey you have ever heard.
So, like many folks around, I became a big fan of Brave Combo and saw them as many times as I could. The only problem was that they became very popular and it began to get to be difficult to see them because of the big crowds they drew.
One enjoyable concert was at Fair Park in 2000. Candy and I were at an art festival when I heard from a long way away someone shout, “It’s Salsa Time!” into a PA system. I knew it was Brave Combo.
That was eighteen years after I had first heard them. Now it is twelve years later and they are still going strong. This time at the Dallas Museum of Art for their Late Night Friday celebration. The place was really crowded, though by eleven the huddled masses was beginning to thin a tiny bit. I was able to fight my way into the venue and work into a small spot next to the dance floor.
All night I had been looking at the high fashion walking around and thinking that this was not a Brave Combo crowd. I was wrong. The minute the band started playing the dance floor filled with a wildly diverse group of people all thrashing around like crazy people with ants in their pants.
That’s really the key to Brave Combo’s popularity… with these folks working so hard at their polka and other world dances, how can you be embarrassed to leap around no matter how unskilled, untrained, or uncoordinated you are.
It was pretty cool to be hanging out late at night at a major art museum, in the middle of the Picasso, Degas, and Matisse and listen to a cluster of aging musicians hammer out The Chicken Dance and seeing everybody flapping their arms.
So when you find Brave Combo coming to your neighborhood, go out and give them a try. Don’t forget your dancing shoes.