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Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding / Features Editor
By Lucinda Breeding / Features Editor

The rumors are true. There won't be any "Must Be Santa" styled as a samba, no "Oh Holy Night" reimagined as a cha-cha during the 23rd annual Denton Holiday Lighting Festival.

Brave Combo won't be ending the event with its Christmas concert, a performance in which the two-time Grammy-winning polka band turned holiday favorites into cumbias, polkas and bossa novas.

Carl Finch, the founder of the Denton band, said it wasn't the group's decision. Courtesy photo Brave Combo is, from left: Carl Finch, Danny O'Brien, Alan Emert, Jeffrey Barnes (kneeling) and Little Jack Melody. The band won't be ending the 23rd annual Denton Holiday Lighting Festival with its Christmas concert, a performance in which the two-time Grammy-winning polka band turned holiday favorites into cumbias, polkas and bossa novas. View larger More photos Photo store

"This came from the [Denton Holiday] Festival Association," Finch said. "This wasn't Brave Combo's decision."

Finch also said the band doesn't want its fans to be mad, and that the band isn't calling for a boycott of the event. He said his e-mail inbox was starting to bulge with tart questions about a perceived defection on the band's part.

"The association wanted to take the event in a new direction," said Finch, who plays accordion, keyboard and guitar and is the lead singer of the band. "We know things change, and we're OK with change. We just want people to know that this was the association's decision. Brave Combo did not leave the event. If people are mad about it, they need to talk to the association, not us."

Marcus Watson, the outgoing president of the Denton Holiday Festival Association, said Finch was right.

"We need to own that," Watson said. "We did want to take the event in a different direction. We do want to take this in a different direction."

Unfortunately, Brave Combo got caught up in a year of change for the festival, Watson said. And the decision wasn't easy.

"I've been on the committee for four or five years now, and there were some longtime board members who wanted to talk about having a different band every once in an while," he said. "Everyone on the board loves Brave Combo - we just wanted to talk about adding some variety.

Watson said Finch seemed to bristle when he approached him with some suggestions.

"I reached out to the band in February [2010] because I wanted to get on their radar. When I asked Carl if they'd consider playing with other bands, he didn't want to do that," Watson said. "And when I asked him about maybe rotating and not doing the festival every year, he wasn't interested in that at all."

Brave Combo played last year during the festival. Then the association recruited Denton composer and trombone player David Pierce to take over the music. Pierce will lead an 11-piece orchestra and accompany renowned local musicians Paul Slavens, Sarah Jaffe and members of the band Midlake.

"We're really excited about this year's event, and we're pushing that. We think this is going to be a great event for families," Watson said. 

Finch said he's probably appeared to be an antagonist to association officials over the years.

"I know they probably think I've acted like a diva," Finch said. "I did fight for some things pretty hard over the years, things that cost them money. Like a stage. When we first started doing this event, we played on the courthouse lawn. After that, I asked them to provide a stage, not just for us, but for the audience. When you get that many people in an area like that, you really need a stage so the audience can see and hear."

Soon after that, Finch said, he asked the association to provide windbreaks on the stage as well as heaters.

"There's a reason music festivals are in the spring," Finch said. "When it gets cold and you have horns up there, they can go out of tune. And when it gets cold, it can be hard to play. I'm sure they thought I was being a jerk, but I just wanted Brave Combo to give the best performance we could. If you look at the festival site, there's a video from our concert and it says it was 23 degrees that night. It can get cold up there. We love this event. We've turned down other, better-paying gigs because this event was important to us."

Brave Combo has made a point over the years to correct emcees who introduce them as an Austin or Dallas band. Finch greets the crowd and says the polka band is from Denton as a matter of habit.

That's just one reason former City Council member Mike Cochran pushed to have Brave Combo join the lighting festival. He said he had to sell the association on the idea, and raise half the money to pay the band's discounted price.

"It worked well because they are Brave Combo and have a unique relationship with the Denton community," Cochran wrote in a message from Italy, where he lives part-time.

"It was a smoke-free, non-bar experience that meshed perfectly with the goodwill generated by the Christmas season," Cochran said. "The fact that it was a complete 'all ages' event added to the delight of the night. I saw babies bopping on the shoulders of their parents, by grannies in wheelchairs, by teenie-boppers in the mosh pit, by old hippies in from the country, by sophisticates (well, only one of those), by sweet old couples, all together as one great swaying, throbbing mass. It was as democratic an event as I've ever seen, where all were welcomed, no matter how dorky you danced."

Cochran said the festival falling on a Thursday made it a lot easier for Brave Combo to participate because Friday is a working night for musicians. Finch confirmed that.

"When they moved it to Friday, I knew that would make it harder for us. But that in and of itself wouldn't make us not do the event," Finch said. "We plan maybe four months ahead, and when we looked at Christmas, the holiday lighting was at the top of the list. We don't make money on the event, but we always put it at the top of the list."

Cochran said he was sad to learn that Brave Combo won't be part of the festival.

Bobby Ilami, a Denton musician and the founder of Funk Nug Records, said he's happy to see the association branching out.

"I am personally glad to get some variety in local festivals," Ilami said. "I am so sick of bands like Wee-Beasties and Brave Combo. There is an entire generation of Dentonites that don't care for the fancy jazz scene nor the sweaty, fat, naked guy on stage. Let's make some room for some young local acts. There are plenty that deserve it."

Richard Haskins, the "sweaty, fat, naked guy" who fronts the Wee-Beasties punk band, recently issued a 7-inch record, Don't Shred on Me, which features Brave Combo on the B-side. Haskins worked in the studio with Brave Combo on the project.

"It's a travesty to take hometown heroes like Brave Combo and cast them aside like a child does a toy to pick up a shiny new pet," Haskins said. "I love Paul and Sarah to death, but it seems like we're robbing the children of this town. Brave Combo is Denton."

Denton resident Gayla Jackson said she and her family will skip the holiday lighting this year.

"Brave Combo is our family tradition at Christmas," she said. "I will miss that the most."

Watson and Micah Pazoureck said the festival association has spent the last two years struggling to raise money to produce the lighting festival, which puts performers from both community and school groups on two outdoor stages, in the lobby of the downtown Wells Fargo bank, inside the Denton County Courthouse on the Square, the Bayless-Selby House Museum and African American Museum.

The festival association produces the event through donations and corporate sponsorships. It also maintains the lights in the large trees surrounding the Courthouse on the Square year-round.

In a move to promote more out-of-town tourism and downtown shopping during the lighting festival, Pazoureck said, the association had long talked about moving the event from the first Thursday of December to the first Friday. That change was made for this year's event.

Watson said the association has even discussed making the event a weekend festival.

"Now that I'm involved with Dan's [Silverleaf, a popular downtown music venue and bar] and 35 Denton, I'm really onto this idea of getting people to come to Denton and stay in our hotels and motels," he said.

Watson said Denton's music scene - a foundation that was laid in part by Brave Combo - is likely to be a draw. The spring indie music festival, 35 Denton, has bumped up tourism by putting major acts such as indie rockers the Flaming Lips and hip-hop sensation Big Boi like a cherry on top of showcases packed with Denton and regional bands.

"With the attention Denton has gotten nationally and internationally for the music here, I think we need to promote that as much as we can," Watson said. "It's what makes us Denton, and it's what makes people want to be here."

The holiday lighting event will still feature the community performances, a toy drive for the Denton County Toy Store and Wassail Fest - a nonalcoholic wassail tasting that pits local businesses against one another in a contest to determine who whips up the best hot spiced cider.

This year, though, Slavens said he'll be doing a reading of How The Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss. Pierce said he's arranging holiday music to accompany rising indie-folk soloist Sarah Jaffe and some of the musicians from the British-folk-flavored Midlake.

Finch said he can't remember how many years Brave Combo has ended the event with a concert that packs the downtown with bobbing, dancing people. He thinks the band has been playing the event for maybe 18 or 19 years.

He's not opposed to returning to the event, should the association invite the polka band back for another performance.

"Oh, yeah. We'd definitely do it again," Finch said.

Watson said, though he's off the association board next year, that the band would be a welcome addition to the event.

"I think everybody would like to see that happen," he said.

LUCINDA BREEDING can be reached at 940-566-6877. Her e-mail address is



Brave Combo will play a show at 10 p.m. Friday at Dan's Silverleaf, 103 Industrial St. Christmas tunes are on the bill. Ticket prices haven't been set. To check ticket prices, visit