Photos by Allen Hill
It would be interesting to find out how many weddings have taken place at Discovery Green since it opened last year, but it's hard to imagine that any of them could have been any livelier than Brave Combo's free concert there Thursday evening. In its second season, DG's free concert series seems to be catching on; the khaki and flip-flop crowd, flecked here and there with tousle-headed hipsters and people of color, took up most of the lawn.
And whether tykes in diapers, broughams in "Czech This Out!" T-shirts or silver foxes well past AARP age, few in the audience were shy about dancing (or could withstand Combo spokesman Carl Finch's relentless hectoring to come down front). No doubt aided by the free polka lessons given right before the Denton-based Grammy winners began, they danced in a line - including a conga line that snaked the small amphitheater's perimeter - in circles and half-circles, the two-step and the waltz.
And, of course, they did the chicken dance, a gloriously chaotic and serpentine chain of human dominoes that imploded on itself once before everybody got the hang of it. It was like being at a wedding with a few hundred good-natured strangers.
While all this dancing was going on, though, so was something else: Brave Combo was offering an engaging and fairly comprehensive musical geography lesson. From Thursday alone, tickers on the band's instrument cases would have included Brazil, Cuba, Mexico - cumbias and conjunto accounted for a good half of the set - Greece, Italy, Spanish Harlem, Hollywood, South Texas and, of course, Poland and Czechoslovakia, Central European strongholds of that much-misunderstood dance known as the polka.
It's funny, and a little sad, that people still think polka is nothing more than an "and-a von, and a too..." musical punchline. And it's not that there weren't a few (or more) Lawrence Welk fans in the crowd Thursday, or that Brave Combo didn't play some pretty hokey stuff like turning "Louie Louie" into a step-lively cha-cha, or "Isometric Workout," which Finch said came from an exercise record released at the height of the twist craze.
But acting silly isn't the same as goofing off, at least not musically speaking. It ain't easy to play music that crosses so many national borders while keeping the dance floor full; Jeffrey Barnes nailing the introduction to George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue on "Clarinet Polka," Finch's accordion on Tony Delaroso's "Conjunto Polka" and trumpeter Danny O'Brien's spicy Herb Alpert solo on that twist were but three examples that Brave Combo - 30 years old this year - may not take itself too seriously, but the players all have serious chops. (That goes triple for BC's on-point three-man rhythm section.)
And, as hard as it is to fathom, that polka may be the closest thing Western music has to a universal tongue. Roll that one around your head like a barrel this weekend.