There’s no place like their Denton home for world music/polka masters Brave Combo, but Waco and West are on their comfort zone map.
The band returns Thursday night to Waco and McLennan Community College’s Bosque River Stage, bringing former longtime member Jeffrey Barnes and Brave Combo’s A-game, due to long friendships with local audiences and musicians.
For founder and guitarist/keyboardist/accordionist Carl Finch, that familiarity means fans of the Grammy Award-winning band expect players to deliver — and that’s a good thing. “We’re playing for people we know really care about music,” he said.
And while some new songs added to Brave Combo’s considerable globe-spanning repertory this spring caused Finch to perform with sheet music in front of him, he won’t be doing that Thursday night, particularly since the band follows the musicianship of the performance opening MCC Faculty Jazz Ensemble.
“I’m going to have to buckle down and memorize these new songs. I will not have a music stand in front of (MCC music instructor) Dick Gimble,” Finch vowed.
Waco-area fans and Westfest partyers who’ve followed the Denton combo over four decades know what to expect from the group that once labeled itself a “nuclear polka” band: an infectious mix of polkas, dance music, pop, rock and more from around the world, seasoned with humor and served with first-class musicianship.
Formed in 1979, Brave Combo was dabbling in world music before pop-rock stars David Byrne and Paul Simon started their ventures into it. In the decades that followed, Brave Combo has built a fan base across the country and not only in America’s polka pockets, winning two Grammy Awards and musical appearances on the animated television series “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.”
In auditioning new players for the band over the years, it’s Brave Combo’s distinctive tone that’s often the hard part to fit.
“Your head has to be in the right place. For us, everything is sacred and nothing is sacred,” Finch said.
While the band’s free-wheeling approach to music has enabled it to keep relevant through swings in popular tastes, it’s finding its message of boundary-dissolving music getting pushback in the current political climate.
With all the hot rhetoric over immigration in the early days of President Donald Trump’s administration, the Denton band chose to address, musically, their side of the issue with several “Immigrant Songs” concerts this spring.
Riffing off the Led Zeppelin tune “Immigrant Song” — some audience members got the reference, Finch said — Brave Combo played melodies that started in places like Mexico, the Czech Republic, Poland, Colombia, Germany and the Middle East, then wound up changing form as they entered the melting pot of American music.
European polkas that arrived in Monterey, Mexico, a century ago transformed into the accordion-driven Tejano and norteño music of today. Polish polkas that entered eastern American seaports collided with big-city jazz and Big Band sounds to create a different musical cousin.
Put simply — OK, perhaps forcefully — without immigrants, Brave Combo wouldn’t have music.
For some, the pro-immigrant message crossed the line.
“We lost fans because of it. We had names removed from mailing lists. We had fans who said they’d never come to another Brave Combo concert,” Finch said. “We knew we were stepping into dangerous territory. . . . It’s a strange place we’re at now. People are completely consumed about opinion.”
Some of the 10 tunes learned for “Immigrant Songs” may show up in Thursday’s concert. This time, however, he won’t need a music stand.
Performing with Finch at the Bosque River Stage are trumpeter Danny O’Brien, guitarist Robert Hokamp, bassist Lyle Atkinson, drummer Alan Emert and former longtime woodwind player Jeffrey Barnes, who left the group three years ago but frequently sits in for some shows.
Fans who haven’t heard Brave Combo in recent years, despite the Denton band’s annual appearance at Westfest, might notice a slightly edgier sound, thanks to a change in instrumentation after Barnes left the band. Filling his place is Hokamp, whose guitar lines mirror almost note for note Barnes’s clarinet and saxophone runs. That, in turn, opened the door for new guitar harmonies between Finch and Hokamp. “That’s been super cool,” said Finch.
The Brave Combo leader admitted he missed the early years of Waco’s Brazos Nights concert series, when the Denton band made regular appearances, before a shift in programming and series length resulted in more nationally known performers and fewer concerts.
The size and diversity of Brazos crowds demonstrated how world music could bring people together.
“That was a great melting pot, an amazing assortment of people,” he said.