Brave Combo at Bryant Park
“Are you ready to hear some polka?” asked venerable Brave Combo bandleader Carl Finch Wednesday night (July 18) in launching the Carnegie Hall Citywide series of five free concerts in Midtown Manhattan’s Bryant Park.
Perhaps wisely, he wouldn’t wait for an answer.
“Say yes—even if you aren’t!” commanded Finch, though really, he didn’t need to. Sure enough, there were numerous Brave Combo t-shirts visible throughout the crowd (one on a man carrying on his shoulders a toddler adorned with a Ramones t-shirt), and plenty more people on their feet dancing at the foot of the stage set-up on the Sixth Avenue side of the park.
The eclectic Grammy-winning polka-punk group from Denton, Texas, formed by guitarist/keyboardist/accordionist Finch in 1979, remains courageous in its world music mix of salsa, merengue, rock, cumbia, conjunto, zydeco, classical, blues, and yes, polka, among other genres—and Finch was quick to give credit where it was rightfully due.
“If it weren’t for immigrants,” he declared, “there would be no Brave Combo.”
His well-thought out reasoning was crystal clear: Immigrants from many countries brought their music to America, a great deal of which was absorbed into Brave Combo.
And with that they were off to Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” with Danny O’Brien on trombone (he also played other brass instruments—not to mention rhythmic Jew’s harp) switching parts with Jeffrey Barnes on clarinet (he also played other woodwinds), and Finch vocalizing the melody line and getting the crowd to follow suit. Polish polka was well represented by Scrubby & The Dynatones’ classic “Down at the Friendly Tavern,”and the traditional “Hosa Dyna,” this dedicated to veteran New York polka DJ Bill Shibilski.
By way of “the great salsa singer, Cher” came a salsa-fied “The Way of Love” that fed into a like-flavored take on “Louie, Louie.” Then it was cumbia time, via “Theme from Mission: Impossible,” followed by tango (“Hermando’s Hideaway”) to twist (“Hava Nagila”) to conga line throughout the park (“Brazil”) to “Theme from A Summer Place.”
Barnes brought it back to polka, his intro from “Rhapsody in Blue” naturally blending into “The Clarinet Polka.” Brave Combo’s longtime former bassist Bubba Hernandez, here on a rare return to the band (and rejoining drummer Alan Emert Mansfield in demarcating the varied dance beats), sang lead on Mexican anthem “Cielito Lindo.”
By request, Finch submitted a rock guitar version of polka staple “In Heaven There is No Beer,” adding a verse about wine and “buds” to go with the suds. He got everyone to stand up to do the “The Hokey Pokey,” and after they sat back down played a slow “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the rest of the band looking skyward when he inserted bird sounds to match the “birds fly” lyric.
"Do Something Different"
The set ended with a polka turn on “William Tell Overture,” with more overlapping horn/reed parts from O’Brien and Barnes. But noteworthy, too, were two great Brave Combo polka originals: “Do Something Different,” in which Finch got everyone to shout out the song’s suggested “Disappear!” solution, and the wonderful “Flying Saucer.” And a “good old Greek folk music” tune seemed particularly timely.
“The Tsamikos,” said Finch, was traditionally sung only by men, and only on the night before they went off to war. At Bryant Park, however, he opened participation up to “all the sexes in the world—and the best part is, we don’t have to go to war tomorrow!”
Brave Combo performs "Flying Saucer"