By Gary E. McKee
As reported in the August 2016 issue of Texas Polka News
Brave Combo (BC) is one of the most accurately named bands in the music scene today. Leader and founder Carl Finch has been taking his musical cronies into little known realms of
rhythm without fear of repercussion for 37 years. To illustrate the progress he has made, Carl was recently inducted into the International Polka Association Hall of Fame, where he joins 2016 inductees Stanley "Stas" Golonka, Dean Hansen, Richard Midura, and Don Jodlowski (posthumously).
"I'm beyond the most outside person, I think," Carl said. "Most people [in the Polka Hall of Fame] grew up in some household where polka was a way of life, and [their] family has played for generations." Carl said that there are not any musicians in his family, and that music wasn't a major facet of his home life.
Carl wasn't expecting to be named as an inductee. "I couldn't believe it," he said. "I could look at tangible markers in my career that tell me I achieved what I wanted as an artist." Some markers include marching in Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, playing the Lincoln Center and next night, CBGB, a famous punk rock club in New York City. Brave Combo has earned Grammys, performed in movies, written and performed television show soundtracks, been
animated in a couple of episodes of The Simpsons, and Bob Dylan covered one of their songs, to give a short list.
Carl continued, "I look at all of these things, but the Hall of Fame means that my adventure through this art - polka - has now been not only recognized, but lauded by people who
have been doing this forever."
All sounds like a great musical resume. But marching in Macy's parade? BC had been performing as a wandering polka band at the Texas State Fair for several years, when they
got several gigs in New York over Thanksgiving weekend in the mid 1980s. On a whim, Carl contacted Macy's Parade officials and asked if they needed another marching band. All they could say was "No", right? Carl sent in a demo tape, Macy's accepted, and they were playing polka in the parade behind the Woody Woodpecker balloon and in front of Dionne Warwick's float.
BC had a wandering gig at the State Fair for 10 years until October fests filled their schedule. But this year, they're back. BC will be headlining the main stage on Thurs., Oct. 6. "We get to bring polka awareness to the state fair," Carl said.
Growing up in Texarkana, and attending Texas High, might have shaped Carl into a person that can see both sides of musical composition. Texarkana is a city that the Texas/Arkansas state line literally runs through the courthouse and down the main drag. The Arkansas side of the street is lined with honky-tonks and the Texas side has a lot of churches. This environment might have influenced Carl to start polkasizing rock-n-roll songs.
In extreme northeast Texas, polka was nonexistent. In the late 1970s, Carl had been collecting 45s and albums while learning about different music genres. Venturing into the local Woolworth's, Carl distinctly remembers it was on the left hand side just at you entered,
and there it was, a large stack of polka albums for sale REAL cheap. Not sure what polka sounded like, he bought them all. (Remember, they were REAL cheap. Us record collectors
Dragging his growing record collection to college in Denton, he studied graphic design, art, and music. Figuring the best way to combine his talents was to form a band. While attempting to figure out which direction to take his music, the Texarkana influence kicked in and he started listening to his polka LP stash more closely, discovering a whole new world of rhythms and musical textures that felt authentic and was nowhere near mainstream music.
"I wanted to present polka in a way that wasn't stereotypical of the genre during the band's growth in the '80s," Carl said. "Accordion in rock music was unheard of, much less popular. I
was confused about why polka music was always the butt of the joke - why it was always the music that people would use to sell beer and sausage."
POLKA WAS THE ANSWER
The move away from guaranteed gigs (as long as you could play Proud Mary and Wooly Bully, you got paid) gave birth to the name Brave Combo as they began attempting to recreate what they heard on these albums Woolworth's couldn't sell. Attempting to recreate these rhythms was difficult as they were clueless on the music itself, which was mostly Polish polkas. This accounts for early BC songs having a real fast beat, which over the years Carl said was slowed down to the "peppy" speed of today.
After feeling secure in their musical abilities, BC took a gamble in restructuring worshipped, traditional music and then rebuilding it as something new and refreshing. This theory was applied to all genres. This writer's favorite Christmas album is BC's It's Christmas Man!
composed of new strains of standard music, such as a cha-cha version of O Holy Night. But their version of Ave Maria is played so reverently that you can smell the incense and hear the
priests chanting in a huge cathedral.
"I have always said, 'Nothing is sacred, and everything is sacred,'" Carl said, channeling the Texas side of Texarkana. "We've never done these things to mock the music. It has never
been a joke to us."
When BC turns loose on polka standards such as Beer Barrel Polka (Arkansas side of Texarkana) it is pedal-to-the-floor intensity. BC's mission has also been to expose their followers to the different styles of music from around the globe, such as Skokiaan, a 1950s SouthAfrican song about making bootleg liquor. It has been previously recorded by Louis Armstrong, Bill Haley, and Herb Alpert. Carl has interpreted musical voices from Japanese pop to zydeco to multiple Latin rhythms. A critic noted while attending a BC gig, "You might come for the party, but you will leave with an education."
Carl said that one main goal of his band's music is to "destroy people's misconceptions about what's cool in music."
TIP OF THE HAT
Carl said he was something of an outsider from the get-go. He has been a vegetarian for years and mostly abstinent when it comes to alcohol (Texas side of Texarkana). As BC climbed the ladder of success and started logging lots of festival invitations, his diet and non-drinking ways might have irritated the hospitality folks at events that tend to celebrate beer and bratwurst.
When on a bill with Tejano bands, Carl said, "It's a complicated thing, but I wanted
to be part of it (Tejano festivals) even though I knew someone was going to want to go eat cabrito at some point."
That funky red top hat that Carl has been wearing for several years is the only fashion statement that he makes on stage. For years, he wore a black T-shirt and black jeans so as not to distract from the music. When he decided to brighten up his stage dress, he hit the jackpot when he found his "fab" red hat at a costume supply shop in Denton.
The very first weekend he wore it was at a gig in Odessa, Texas. Several weeks later, while performing in Las Vegas, he was standing in a long line waiting for a taxi when a voice
boomed from across the street, "YOU GUYS WERE GREAT IN ODESSA!" The hat and BC music had made an impression on at least one Texian.
One last BC story. Westfest, held in the town of West, Texas, is a bastion of Czech polka and waltz music. The festival oozes authentic Czech music like peach filling from a kolache. BC
has been the house band for over 30 years. 'I asked the booking agent for an opportunity to play and told him they didn't have to pay us," Carl recalled. "We just needed a chance to play in front of a real polka crowd."
They were given a corner of a small tent. After the first set, the crowd kept growing. When
their time was up, the crowd refused to let them quit and passed the hat around and came up with $100, and the rest is history.
"My life continues to surprise and confuse me," Carl said, speaking over the phone while standing on his patio - or, as he likes to call it, his "catio" or patio for cats. "I'm amazed that I've made enough money with Brave Combo that we could build this really nice patio for our cats."
The IPA's acknowledgement of Carl and his music is a refreshing acceptance of the diversification of polka. The induction ceremonies will be conducted at the association's Polka Hall of Fame & Music Awards Banquet on Sat., Sept. 3 in Buffalo, New York. Unfortunately, Carl won't be able to attend. That's Westfest weekend! The banquet is part of the 48th Annual IPA Polka Festival and Convention. For more information, visit ipapolkas.com.
Read Congrats Carl! from fellow polka lovers.