9 p.m. Thursday
309 White, Norman
Success occurs in the most unlikely places, as if a challenge to our preconceptions. So it is that Texas quintet Brave Combo is into its 32nd year, with two Grammy Awards in hand, as arguably America’s best-known polka band.
The five-piece has played Talking Head David Byrne’s wedding, appeared on “The Simpsons” and been covered by Bob Dylan. It’s a bit shocking even for founder Carl Finch, who’s initially at a loss to explain the group’s longevity.
“It blows my mind. I think our ability to diversify and meet so many demands and our passion moved in a direction that a lot of people were moving without realizing it, to be honest,” he said. “When we started playing polkas and especially some of the Latin stuff and rhumbas, that stuff turns people on big-time. They get really excited about it, because it’s hard not to like it. Then “¦ a few people passionate about dancing can get everyone going.”
It all began while Finch attended North Texas State University, playing and studying music while doing offbeat DJ gigs on the side. It was sort of a natural evolution for someone who spent most of his money at the record store, buying anything with an interesting looking jacket. That ethos produced a lot of unusual finds.
“I had a whole lot of vinyl, so I started doing this bizarre disco thing, playing unusual music,” he said. “It went over pretty well, and then some of the music I was playing for that turned into some of the playlist for Brave Combo, because I would mix up bizarre songs, and I just eventually wanted a live band to do that.”
Hitting the road in the late ’70s, the only venues offering the band gigs were punk clubs, which Finch said embraced the combo “fully.”
“We figured they would like us because we were weird, but the beat was the same,” he said. “We played polka super-fast those days, like a rock band. Our polkas were about as fast as the Dead Kennedys.”
Things progressed pretty quickly, and by the mid-’80s, the musicians had started to develop a reputation. This was helped by the 1984 release, “World Dance Music,” which earned a mention in Rolling Stone, noting the group’s covers of The Doors’ “People Are Strange” and “Purple Haze” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
When the act played its first New York City show, famed critic Lester Bangs was in the front row, and wrote a glowing review in The Village Voice. This unleashed a landslide of attention, including mentions in odd places like Elle and the porn mag Oui. Brave Combo even ended up in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“I was pretty naive. I was in my 20s, and I wondered how anybody does this,” Finch said. “So I called Macy’s in New York and said, ‘I’ve got a quartet. We march around and we can play polkas and we’ll dress cool, and we’ll be up in New York around that time.’ The guy says, ‘Send me a cassette,’ and in a week, we had a slot between Woody Woodpecker and Dionne Warwick.”
Although the songs that have generated the most attention are the band’s rock ‘n’ roll covers ” 2007’s Grammy-nominated “Polka’s Revenge” includes The Who’s “I Can See for Miles” ” they comprise only a small percentage of the songs the members play. Indeed, while covers might be the calling cards that pique listeners’ initial interest, it’s the energy and spirit of the music that seals the deal. Brave Combo delivers a joyously rambunctious show that inspires an appreciation for what must’ve first made people love polkas ” and rhumbas, mambos, sambas, horas and the many other ethnic dance-music styles it plays.
In fact, when “Weird Al” Yankovic first came on the scene, Brave Combo questioned his motives.
“We were suspicious of what he was doing right at first, because we were working very hard at being sure we didn’t offend the polka audience because we wanted that crowd to dig us,” Finch said. “So when he started, it was so obviously goofy, but I have to say it’s very well-done and the guy can play accordion. He does love polka and we now know each other, and we’re friends. I wouldn’t have chosen that as my path, and I would have shaved my mustache, cut my hair, and ditched the Hawaiian shirt a long time ago.” “Chris Parker