By: J.K. Nickell
Denton Live Jan-June 2012
A baby mannequin swaddled in multicolored Mardi Gras beads peers out from behind the storefront window of Brave Combo’s office. The band’s headquarters and rehearsal studio just off Denton’s historic Downtown Square is shuttered. Where is the pink-top-hat-wearing mad scientist of a musician who’s famous for herding people onstage to perform the Chicken Dance? Just then, Carl Finch’s baby blue Mercedes convertible cruises into view and Brave Combo’s co-founder steps out dressed totally in black, his shoulder-length silver locks billowing in the wind.
The guys in Brave Combo specialize in making entrances – and exits, for that matter. Over the past three decades, the Denton band with the polkasonic rock sound that incorporates salsa, samba, two-step, foxtrot and waltz (not to mention traditional Japanese music) has won two Grammys, toured Europe and Asia and starred on “The Simpsons” TV show. Bob Dylan recently covered their song, “Must Be Santa,” and Drew Carey wants them for a trio of shows in Las Vegas. But Carl is unequivocal about his favorite show: the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival, where the band plays the final night, closing out three days of raucous rock, jazz, and rhythm and blues every April. “There’s not another gig that we do in the country that’s like that,” he says. “The kids are waiting on a signal from us to go berserk. … It’s like a polka mosh pit.”
The festival began in the 1980s as a one-day Spring Fling concert, but has morphed into the town’s largest celebration, attracting more than 200,000 people annually. In the heart of Denton, Quakertown Park’s 20 acres overflow with seven performance stages, six food courts, artists, craft vendors, and a children’s percussion tent. The festival’s mashup of music and arts embraces the heartbeat of the city itself, where Ph.D.s mix with horse breeders, and Grammy winners harmonize with garage bands. “It’s a great gig, great production, great promotion, great crowd. I always look at the Sunday afternoon and evening as the Denton homecoming and it seems that our set is the culmination of that,” says Carl.
Friday night is a tribute to the festival’s jazz roots, kicking off with guitar virtuoso Lee Ritenour, who’s jammed alongside legends B.B. King, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin during his prolific 40-year career. His latest record, “6 String Theory,” was named the 2010 Guitar Album of the Year by Guitar International – just another accolade to hang next to his 17 Grammy nominations. Lou Marini, Tom Malone, Marvin Stamm and the Chick Corea Trio filled this slot in past years.
But Denton’s big festival is not all about jazz. Saturday night’s show this year rocks with the Chicano sounds of Los Lonely Boys, known for combining rock ’n roll, blues, soul, country and Tejano. Los Lonely Boys rocketed to the forefront of the music scene in 2004 with their self-titled double-platinum debut album and Grammy-winning single, “Heaven.” The Garzas, the band’s trio of brothers, haven’t slowed down: Their Texas roots reverberate through their latest effort. “Let’s cut right to the chase – ‘Rockpango,’ the first album of original material by Los Lonely Boys in three years – is superb,” raved American Songwriter.
The festival, in its 32nd year, is not just a local tradition anymore. The American Bus Association, which represents touring motor coach companies, named the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival one of the Top 100 Events in North America for 2012 while the Denton Festival Foundation picked up a Texas Woman’s University Founders’ Award for the “leadership in and dedication to the Denton community.”
None of this would be possible if not for the festival’s 200-plus sponsors, who continue to send volunteers and shell out financial help in the midst of a struggling economy to make the festival a hit – and keep it free, something that’s a must for the Denton Festival Foundation and its executive director, Carol Short. “Some people have never seen these professional headliners at a live performance. If you had to buy a ticket to see some of the groups we’ve had, it would cost a lot of money. That’s what we’re proud of. That’s our legacy. Equally important are the 350 members of the Denton Festival Foundation who volunteer their time at the event,” she says.
Wells Fargo, a key supporter, is sponsoring the festival for the 12th time this year and dispatching dozens of volunteers to the festival grounds to man booths and help vendors. “The festival serves the community. It celebrates so much of what is unique about Denton,” says Meleia Waschka, district manager for Wells Fargo in Denton. “It’s so much fun to get out and enjoy the music, see the art, visit with members of the community and others that come from outside the community.”
The one constant year to year, besides Carol’s guiding hand, is Brave Combo. “Really what Arts & Jazz means to me – it’s not just another gig – it really is this kind of homecoming. We play all the Brave Combo hits everybody wants to hear,” Carl says. “There’s a lot of back and forth with the audience. Everybody knows it, so it’s just kind of a time that everybody comes back to town – ‘Oh yeah, we’re here at the park.’ That’s familiar. ‘Oh, Brave Combo’s on stage.’ That’s familiar. ‘Oh good, they’re playing the songs that we want to hear.’ It’s unique in that respect.”
Professionals star on the three main stages while four stages show off local talent: university musicians, community groups, dance troupes and elementary choirs. “They’re all treated like professionals on our stages,” says Carol, who spends much of the year inviting local favorites and securing headliners from the festival’s wish list. “Every stage has professional technicians and sound. These young people have as much exposure or more than they’ve ever had.” This egalitarian ethos is a part of what makes the festival unique, she notes. “There are no barriers. The diversity makes the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival special.”
Though music drives the festival, the art scene harbors no slackers. The festival hosts a juried competition to select 175 finalists that represent some of the best work in the country, offering everything from beaded trinkets to sculpture and jewelry as well as oil paintings, pottery and photography. “Usually if somebody is a real music lover, then to have fine art there too is just icing on the cake,” Carol says. “Music and the arts fill your soul. They feed it. When you’re at the festival, all of this takes you on a wonderful journey.”
After showcasing his work at the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival for the past eight years, Brad Foster still anticipates his journey to Denton every spring. He crisscrosses the country selling his one-of-a-kind ink drawings, which capture ultra-realist portraits as well as fantasy creatures and cartoons. “There’s a joke I have with other artists,” Brad says. “We always ask each other, ‘If you won the lottery and you didn’t have to worry about selling [your art], which shows would you still do?’ The Denton Arts & Jazz Festival I would still do.”
Robert Hale, who creates sculpture jewelry with raw metals and gemstones, says he spends hours at the festival gazing at the two-dimensional work inside the art tent, but he prefers to be outside where the art and music mingle. “The variety of artwork is fantastic. You can’t get bored. It’s really hard to cover in one day. And then the music: There are so many stages and such a variety.” Both Robert and Brad look forward to the weekend finale when Brave Combo takes the stage.
One Sunday evening a year, Brave Combo brings together their diehard fans of 31 years with high school students barely half that age, uniting polka traditionalists with hard rock enthusiasts. Carl bursts onto stage and wastes little time in rousing the crowd of 15,000, who leap to their feet and surge forward to hear the band’s familiar tunes cranked out by their beloved accordions. He starts belting out the “Beer Barrel Polka.” Everybody knows what to expect of the closing act …
Roll out the barrel,
we’ll have a barrel of fun
Roll out the barrel,
we’ve got the blues on the run
Zing boom terrera,
Join in a glass of good cheer.
Now it’s time to roll the barrel,
For the gang’s all here!
[just the facts]
What: Denton Arts & Jazz Festival
When: April 27-29, 2012
Where: Quakertown Park, 321 E. McKinney St.
Hours: Friday 5-11 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Admission: Free for all seven stages, six food courts, the art galleries, the children’s art tent and percussion tent
Featuring: 2,700 performers and 300 vendors
Headliners on the Wells Fargo/Budweiser Jazz Stage:
Friday: Lee Ritenour
Saturday: Los Lonely Boys
Sunday: Brave Combo
Budweiser Courtyard Stage: Professional R&B musicians
KNTU-FM 88.1 Radio Roving Stage: Professional musicians perform culturally diverse and acoustic music
Wells Fargo Celebration Stage: Community, school and university bands/orchestras
Denton Record-Chronicle Festival Stage: Community, school and university dance and performance groups
Target Center Stage: Community and school choral groups and bands
UNT Showcase Stage: UNT College of Music performance groups
Concessions: Corndogs to vegetarian, Greek to Cajun
Parking: Anywhere near park grounds
Leave at home: Coolers and pets