IT ALL STARTED WITH THE GRAMMY. Two years ago Brave Combo touched off no small controversy when Polkasonic won best polka album, beating out such pillars of the traditional genre as Jimmy Sturr and Eddie Blazonczyk. The backlash came quickly. “WHO IN THE HELL PAID THE JUDGES SO THAT YOU COULD WIN?” one detractor e-mailed the group. “YOU GUYS STINK AS A POLKA BAND.” If you’ve ever watched postmodern American youths jubilantly doing the chicken dance and the hokey pokey at a Brave Combo show, you might wonder how such an unremittingly sunny, bouncy, and fun-loving group could so rile folks up. But that first-ever Grammy win kicked off a wild ride in which Brave Combo took its hard-rocking brand of music to mainstream polka audiences for the first time. The band fine-tuned its style to accommodate polka’s various musical factions, had some unsettling encounters with white supremacists, and eventually won fans who had always been just beyond its reach. It was worth a few hard knocks.
Now Brave Combo is ready for more. Its latest album, Kick-Ass Polkas, which was recorded live at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio, during a close encounter with the polka’s old guard, is a finalist for another Grammy. When the awards are announced on February 27, another win would help consolidate Brave Combo’s foothold in the traditional polka world even as the band continues to make a living in the alternative-rock world. It’s an unlikely combination, but Brave Combo has never done things the easy way. Lord knows this is not your typical polka band. The group has no dominating ethnic orientation; in fact, it’s an interracial band. They also tend to dress funny, wear their hair all wrong, and play way too loud. But don’t forget that when Carl Finch (who plays the accordion, guitar, and keyboards and handles most of the singing and songwriting) launched the Denton quintet in 1979, they were hardly your typical rock band either. Nobody in that new-wave era took polkas, or the accordion, as anything other than a dreadful offense. Over the decades, Brave Combo has evolved from a raw, ragged, but delightfully infectious garage band into that rarest of aggregations, one that sounds tight and loose simultaneously. The group has earned a living all this time—without having to resort to day jobs!—making arguably the most outsider music in the pop world. And having made that world safe for polkas and accordions, it was only natural to want to do something similar with pop-rock aesthetics for the aging, insular, and ever-shrinking traditional polka world.
In Texas the band made inroads by performing at annual festivals like Westfest in West and ethnic dance halls like Sefcik Hall, outside Temple. Still, Finch often felt like a hired hand whose assignment was to lure a younger audience to the sound, and some old-timers felt that the group was making fun of the music rather than having fun with it. Despite a handful of fans among more-progressive musicians, Brave Combo never gained a footing in polka hotbeds like Chicago, Buffalo, and Cleveland. So the band released Polkasonic with Cleveland International Records instead of Rounder, the roots-music label that had released most of the band’s previous work. Cleveland International has existed, off and on, since 1977, a year before its owner, Steve Popovich, issued Meat Loaf’s multiplatinum debut, but during the past seven years the label has gained a strong reputation for polkas. “We went with Steve because he knew the polka deejays and promoters,” Finch says. “Steve could put his whole office behind it, and with his industry contacts, it’d get into some hands it wouldn’t otherwise.”
The plan worked. Brave Combo received airplay from important polka deejays like Tony Petkovsek in Cleveland and Chuck Stastney in South Dakota. The Grammy controversy—the monthly Polish American Journal published a letter condemning the group because the members weren’t Polish in the same issue that an editorial praised the band for expanding the music’s audience—helped far more than it hurt. Congratulatory e-mails far outnumbered critical ones. The award also won Brave Combo the chance to take its case directly to the premier dance halls and summer polka festivals of the East and upper Midwest. There was just one catch: The band had to learn to play a little differently.
You see, it may sound like a polka is a polka is a polka, but the form supports myriad variants—German and Dutchman, Chicago Push and Cleveland Slovenian, eastern and western Pennsylvanian—defined mostly by ethnicity, language, and differing dance styles. It’s a fragmented, politically torrid world in which opposing camps have little to do with each other. “Because we’re not Polish or German or Czech, we’re nothing,” says Finch. “We’re threatening in a way, but in another way, we’re not threatening at all because we don’t represent any one faction. Our mission is to remove the extraneous attachments from the music that most people think have to be there to give it substance—you know, the drinking and the lederhosen. To remove sausage and beer from polka music—that would be our greatest achievement.” Still, Brave Combo felt obligated to learn the nuances of varying styles so that traditional audiences could dance to the music. “Winning the Grammy, we felt shock, excitement, and ‘Oh, man, this is a responsibility,'” bassist Bubba Hernandez recalls. For the most part, the band prevailed; audiences didn’t prove hostile so much as curious, and if their show-me skepticism resulted in a lukewarm reception at Bel-Aire Polka Days in Chicago, the throng at the Polka Fireworks Festival at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania whooped it up instantly.
Still, there were some scares. On occasion Brave Combo had heard of a polka fringe that considers the music to be a badge of racial pride, but that hadn’t fully prepared the group for the white supremacist in Minnesota who asked the members prove their loyalty by denouncing jazz as the music of Satan and wanted them to wear his “Polish Power” T-shirts onstage (they declined). At one club, sax and woodwinds whiz Jeffrey Barnes found himself staring at a swastika on a men’s-room wall, so he boxed it in. (“You put a square around it, and then you have a window,” he cheerfully explains.) But the band is just as eager to point out that polka supports, for example, another interracial act in western Pennsylvania’s popular Polka Family, led by a local Russian American and his Chicana wife.
In a way the experience mirrored Brave Combo’s early days as outsiders in the pop world. Finch conceived Brave Combo as a reaction to the rock and disco excesses of the seventies. “Our deal is to shake up people’s ideas about what they label hip, or right or wrong,” he says, and in 1981 he mocked trendies by calling the group’s second album Music for Squares. I still remember my own introduction to the band, as part of a 1980 New York new-wave audience that stood slack-jawed while Finch led his charges through an extended squeeze-box workout on James Brown’s “Super Bad.” I wanted to like it, but none of my usual reference points gave me a way into the music. Only after I managed to jettison them did I become hooked. Since then, Brave Combo has released some two dozen albums and toured Europe ten times and Japan three. And for an indie band whose sales barely register in the national market, Brave Combo has been enormously prescient and influential: Finch and company played lounge music back when it was still a pariah and world beat before it had that name. Today the accordion turns up on albums by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, and new rock bands have popped up, like Polkacide in San Francisco.
But can Brave Combo conquer the traditional polka world as well? It’s not like the quintet—trumpeter Danny O’Brien and drummer Alan Emert round out the lineup—wants to become a full-time polka unit (for one thing, the money is considerably better in pop). The members followed their year of living dangerously in the polka power centers by releasing The Process, a pop set, on Rounder. But they’re back with Cleveland International for Kick-Ass Polkas, which is probably the band’s best album yet. It rocks relentlessly, and it polkas, as the saying goes, till you puke. So don’t be surprised if the group is playing events like Polkamotion on the Ocean in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Brave Combo may still be an outsider, but it has developed an uncanny knack for having things both ways.