It may have taken almost 30 years, but Brave Combo, a renegade polka band from Texas, have finally managed to realize nearly every cliché of the rock-star world: appearing on The Simpsons, performing at David Byrne’s wedding, winning two Grammy Awards and recording an album with Tiny Tim. About the only milestone unchecked on Brave Combo’s dance card is performing for the president, although frontman and lead accordionist Carl Finch points out that with this current administration, it’s highly unlikely to happen. “We’re far enough in our career that if we got invited to play on the White House lawn,” he says, “we’d turn it down.”
But wait—what’s that? An accordion festival in a small town, 1,700 miles from home? Hey man, count Brave Combo in! “We’ve wanted to do it forever!” enthuses Finch of the 17-years-and-running Cotati Accordion Festival and its attendant participants. “Freaks, just like us, and in a beautiful part of the country!”
There’s a long-running and accepted notion that the general public hates accordions, but since 1979 Brave Combo have proved it increasingly untrue. While the image of Lawrence Welk as old people’s music fades away—slowly replaced on retirement home stereos by Elvis Presley and the Beatles—there’s a new renaissance afoot for the instrument, and the band’s no-holds-barred mishmash of polka, new wave, noir jazz and border music is living proof. “The old idea of the accordion is so passé, it’s hard to believe anybody would use it as the butt of a joke anymore,” Finch rails, citing tired stereotypes about velour tuxedos and Myron Floren, “because the accordion, generally, is the coolest instrument around.”
Gogol Bordello, Arcade Fire, Yann Tiersen, Joanna Newsom and Dropkick Murphys are but a dramful of new torchbearers for the old keys ‘n’ bellows, and though you’re more likely to hear “That’s Amore” from the lineup in Cotati than, say, Gogol Bordello’s “Immigrant Punk,” you might also get lucky with Brave Combo’s famous version of “Purple Haze.” Yet even Finch is excited about the enormous parade of every participant simultaneously playing “Lady of Spain,” an annual festival ritual best described as majestically nuts. “That’s what’s great about accordion people,” he laughs, “is that they can really poke fun back at themselves.”
The Cotati Accordion Festival spans Saturday&–Sunday, Aug. 25&–26, from 9:30am to 8pm each day, at La Plaza Park in downtown Cotati. Tony Lovello and the Zydeco Gamblers are among the highlights. $15&–$17. 707.664.0444. www.cotatifest.com.