Thoughts of Playing in the Same Band for 40 Years

Carl Finch , the mastermind behind the nuclear polka band, Brave Combo , publishes a newsletter. In the latest he reflects on the long, wonderfully strange trip the band has taken in the last four decades. The following are excerpts from the newsletter with updates.

Forty years ago (1979), around this time, Brave Combo played its first gig. As we were all North Texas State University (now University of North Texas) students, we were going to perform our debut in the courtyard outside the Union Building, in Denton, right in the middle of campus. We put flyers up like crazy and told everyone we knew. Unfortunately, it rained and Lyle [Atkinson] and Dave [Cameron] bailed. So, Tim [Walsh] and I set up inside a classroom in the dance department and played a little concert for about 30 people. As I remember, it went well enough. I can still see certain people sitting there. Some of them continue to experience Brave Combo live.

Two special opportunities, with historical significance, happened recently. On Fri., May 3, 2019 Brave Combo returned to Ft. Worth Mayfest. Forty years ago, almost to the day, we played our sixth gig at Mayfest. This was just a few days after our fifth gig at Hip Pocket Theater, also in Ft. Worth. Well, as I always say, weather is the headliner at all outdoor gigs. Our 2019 Ft. Worth Main Street set was rained out as was the whole festival.

And the Dallas polkaholics had their shot at bliss on Fri. March 10, 2019, at the legendary Poor David’s Pub, where we performed (at the original location) our first club show in Dallas, also in 1979. The show was a success with many fans following their hearts straight to the dance floor.

On June 6 we will play a park concert in San Marcos with three original BC members playing some polkas - [Carl, Lyle, and Tim]. As well, our original woodwind player, Tim Walsh, will provide lasers throughout the show. When he left BC Tim went into the laser light show world and has been pretty successful, with shows all over the world. His latest thing is playing a polka on his Roland digital accordion and it triggers the lasers with the notes. Tim is a unique guy. As pro-polka as he was when he was in BC. Maybe even more.

Update: Gary McKee attended the San Marcos show where Tim's laser light show was quite a crowd pleaser. Lasers (intense beams of light produced by machines) are controlled by computer programs to shoot beams responding to sounds or a computer program. Tim connected his Roland accordion to the light program that would trigger the lasers as he played. He chose Musicians Come and Play Polka.

Kicking off the song the concentrated light beams, in sync with the accordion, began zipping across the top of the crowd from various locations on stage to the immense enjoyment of the crowd. Following that, BC launched into its song I Wanna See a Flying Saucer (who doesn’t?) and with the laser beams shooting over the crowd, the backdrop was filled with images of flying saucers and cute aliens zipping around the screen as they were instantly drawn by the laser machines.

The rest of the set was a BC song fest, including the Hokey Pokey. During all these songs Tim was playing a MIDI keyboard that shot lasers with the notes he normally played. Another feather in the cap of Brave Combo as they Do Something Different!

Back to the newsletter, Carl did a wonderful promotion describing the next 2019 event.

Once again, The National Polka Festival in Ennis, Texas is here. Memorial Day weekend. Bring the family. The halls are all air-conditioned, comfortable and inviting, full of food and drink. And everyone is friendly and gets friendlier with each pivo. Seriously, this is a state-of-the-art wing-ding, as far as current Texas-Czech polka dance music is concerned. The songs are traditional and the arrangements, modern and thoughtful. Czech and Then Some is the heart and soul of the festival and always presents a master’s class in this groovy sound when they perform.

Alex Meixner will be there again this year, as well as Mollie B and Ted Lange. Star-studded! We take the stage Saturday and Sunday nights.

Update: Theresa Parker saw BC perform at the National Polka Fest. The group is always one of the most popular at the festival, and once again played to standing room only crowds.

Back to the newsletter: Speaking of performing, as most of you know, or remember, we used to travel all over regularly. We did it with varying degrees of intensity for over 35 years. It was just part of the deal. Well, things have changed. We still go out a few times a year and just might show up anywhere. Last summer we played a Carnegie Hall-produced show at Bryant Park in NYC. Still a typical event, but we’re just not really into career-building anymore. You know, we are what we are, and no longer much interested in knocking ourselves out to increase our fame. There are new, more efficient ways to spread the word, as fewer and fewer regular folks go out to live music venues.

But back to the nuts and bolts of touring and the unpredictable rewards, just the basics, like getting from Denton to wherever is so much more challenging than before. If you drive, highway construction will stop you 100 times between here and New York City. And everywhere you stop is generally very crowded with other travelers. On top of that, hauling around 4-6 humans who are used to a certain level of well-deserved comfort is expensive. Five hotel rooms, every night of a two-week run can add up. I peruse the motel/hotel reviews myself and book the rooms. The average rating’s gotta be 7 out of 10 or higher.

And flying is a nightmare. Carrying on guitars and accordions and horns used to be super easy. No big deal. If they wouldn’t fit overhead, the attendants would let us put them in the little closet with the bridal gowns. Those days are long gone. But, also, if you fly you have to rent a vehicle or two and most of your stage gear (amps, keyboards, drums, etc.) when you arrive at your location, which is a huge drag and then you’re not even playing on your own stuff. And the sustain pedal is always missing.

On top of these logistical issues, the money for a band such as Brave Combo is about the same as it was 10-15 years ago, but expenses have risen a lot. Plus, the club scene, across the board, was a happier, healthier place 10-15 years ago. We used to count on having good weekday club shows between anchor dates on the road. Those pesky Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But, as everyone knows, live music, at the club level is at an all-time low, attendance-wise, unless the club is hosting cover or tribute bands. And in Texas and Oklahoma, young country acts.

So, we have taken a much less aggressive approach toward long-distance travel (but if the situation and the $ is right, we’re there) and are trying to limit our number of shows a year to just those with obvious value beyond “just a gig for the night.” Thankfully, for Brave Combo, but not so good for faraway fans, we tend to get plenty of good offers (knock on wood) within 7-8 hours of Denton every year. This means I am home with my animals more, able to be in the recording studio more, able to concentrate on creative efforts, like video, more and that sounds way better than spending hours and hours in a van or a plane.

Brave Combo has visited a lot of places. One night we were about to play in Berlin and the opening act, a local German punk polka band, started their set with our song Do Something Different. The first time I visited ROLLING STONE magazine in NYC I met Bill Murray on the elevator. One time in Hollywood, Brave Combo shared a backstage dressing room area with Phyllis Diller and Shecky Greene the time we played the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon.

We marched in the Macy’s Parade in front of Dionne Warwick and behind Woody Woodpecker. During our first trip to Japan we were presented with the same brand of kimonos as the Beatles received during their first trip, by the same company, Isetan.

You might find us playing a wedding in Boston, Seattle, or Playa del Carmen, Mexico. We don’t even stop at the Grand Canyon anymore or even Rock City in Minneapolis, Kansas (look it up). Niagara Falls was so packed with people you could barely get up to the fence to see it. We played a cool gig under the Brooklyn Bridge and did a cool pirate radio show in the Netherlands. We performed at a festival in northern Finland, just below the Arctic circle. It looked like a desolate rest area. All concrete. Damn good accordionists, though. Scary good!

We’ve been in the mountains a lot. On ocean beaches a lot (Atlantic City in the late '80s was quite a sight, dark, funky, down and out and depressing in an inspiring way), in the desert a lot (Vegas in the '80s was quite a sight, the opposite of the Disneyland it is now) and Salt Lake City and the Great Salt Lake is high on the “weird, but we dig it” list.

And the mighty Midwest is practically our second home. We have covered the middle of the USA like the wheat fields. Even made it to PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION a couple of times.

Whatever, I’m not telling you this to brag or to show how worldly Brave Combo is. I could literally go on and on if I wanted you to start thinking less of me. My point is that we have really covered the miles, as anyone on the road for 40 years would have. And, for what it’s worth, compared to some musicians/ artists we ain’t done nothing.

My good friend, Mike Dillon, puts us to shame every week. He’s in China one night and at the Continental Club in Austin the next. But, I have more cats than he does! I can assure you, Brave Combo is still creating new sounds and, combined with my new solo project, music is getting plenty of action. We have 12 new tracks almost ready to release. I am trying to shoot a video for each song (a new necessity, but, why not?).

We hear from fans every day, asking us to come back to wherever and we appreciate it, but the reality sucks, too. If we could be magically transported, I would try to be everywhere at once all the time. But we are not quite there, yet. Close, though.

In the meantime, I want to make Brave Combo’s unique appeal so important to you that you will start to make our shows your destination, no matter where you are from. And if you’re really putting a lot of “above and beyond” effort into your special trip, please let us know and we will play a song, your choice (perhaps, we have to know it), for you at the show.

Anyway, I am starting to think as outside the box as I can, which is just a little concerning, to expand our reach without spending 2/3 of our lives in transit. There’s something to ponder.

Since I started writing this, two tornado warnings were issued for Denton, two areas of circulation heading straight for us. My wife, Jane, and I had to secure lots of worried cats and dogs. Sleep well and dream about Brave Combo riding tornadoes like a bunch of Pecos Bills! We are weathering the storms of life to bring you hope or something like that.

Update: Brave Combo will also be performing at another longtime venue - Westfest - on Labor Day weekend. Go to bravecombo.com to check out the band's schedule and sign up to receive Carl's newsletter The Machine's Pump.

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