Brave Combo

Brave Combo
Miller Outdoor Theater
Houston, TX

After an evening of conjunto and zydeco at the 22nd Annual Accordion Kings and Queens Festival, the “nuclear polka” band from Denton, Texas, took the stage at Miller Outdoor Theater in the heart of Houston accompanied by accordion player Ginny Mac from Fort Worth. The sweltering afternoon had calmed into a beautiful, breezy evening and the crowd stretched over the hill was canopied by a dimly starred sky. As he plugged in cords and adjusted straps for the show, frontman and band founder Carl Finch asked the crowd, smiling, “You guys ready to polka?,” and made a request for people to come to the front and fill in the dance floor, converted from the orchestra pit.

The microphone checks ended and the band dove right into an hour of lovingly irreverent covers starting with the “Jenny Lind Polka,” which ended with a clarinet flourish leading straight into the next tune, a waltz with highlights of jazz saxophone. As the triple time sped up, so did the couples spinning on the dance floor. Conventional dances soon took a brief absence from the floor when the band proposed to combine kids’ music with salsa. Touted as the perfect family experience for a family event such as this, the tune began with “Chopsticks” on the keyboard before being joined by the accordion and a salsa line on the saxophone. After a conjunto tune the band played the “fourth most popular polka of all time,” “The Clarinet Polka,” capped with the introductory solo from “Rhapsody in Blue.”

After a dizzying array of tunes including the Venezuelan “Caballo Viejo” and a Greek Tsamiko complete with head-banging, the band brought out the winner of the Big Squeeze Competition from earlier in the evening, Ignacio “Nachito” Morales, a Dallas area high schooler. Keeping with Brave Combo’s trend of being integrative not just musically but player-wise, Nachito led the band through “Viva Seguin,” and in reply to the energetic applause he was asked to stay onstage for a bright polka tribute to legend Esteban “Steve” Jordon. It went so smoothly that one would never expect that Nachito didn’t yet know the tune, and indeed the band seemed quite impressed.

An hour into the show came a mash of the classic “Hernando’s Hideaway” with “The Twist.” On the dance floor and atop the grassy hill over Hermann Park, there were Twisters everywhere and of every demographic. Already on their feet, the masses were happy to enjoy “the Brave Combo ‘Chicken Dance’ experience,” followed closely by the last tune, a rock-heavy “Hokey Pokey.” As the laser lights flashed and spun for one last flare, the audience danced and laughed along to a rap solo by Carl Finch. The show had tired out the kid in many of the audience members and by the time that Brave Combo left the stage, the faces in the crowd all held similar looks of elated exhaustion.

by Marie Meyers

Angelique Kidjo

Angelique Kidjo
Carver Community Cultural Center
San Antonio, Texas

“This is my first show in San Antonio, and I feel like a queen.” The arresting Angelique Kidjo, dressed in an African patterned print dress, performed an international musical montage, supported by musicians from diverse ethnicities, cultures, and regions, from Boston, Massachusetts to Congo and from Senegal to Brazil. Kidjo’s galvanic performances of thrilling, electric grooves and her fiery, charismatic persona landed her the title of successor to Miriam Makeba, prestigious awards such as the Grammys, and linkups with Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bono, Carlos Santana, Alicia Keys and Peter Gabriel. Her global sounds—at different times dabbling in salsa, Bollywood, reggae, soul, gospel, electronic music, American jazz, African makossa and everything in between—as well as her positivity and encouragement have earned her great international musical esteem from critics and humanitarian organizations.

Kidjo’s transatlantic spirit, especially her spiritual home in Africa, permeated every corner of the theater, grew in a multicultural and multigenerational audience. Kidjo’s slow burning rendition of Sidney Bechet’s standard “Petite Fleur,” which she dedicated to her father (a favorite song of his) and strong African men, evoked every emotion, ranging from pain to compassion, even if her eyes were shut. The blue screen behind her created the mood of a smoky blues bar or jazz haunt, a theme that would contrast with the bright orange background that accompanied muscular rhythms and fevered, exhilarating emotions.

Everybody wanted to be James Brown in Africa during his peak,” she informed the audience. “But I’m glad to have breasts!” Indeed, the influence of the musical revolutionary can be seen in Kidjo, who danced in black heels, incorporating traditionally based African dances to modern rapid rhythmic swaying, shaking, and stomping. In addition, her Afrobeat version of Brown’s seminal “Cold Sweat” revealed the kinship and lineage of American funk to African rhythms. Her robust reading of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” continued the uplift. Towards concert’s end, Kidjo not only welcomed the crowd to chant (particularly with her classic “Afirika”) but to shake her hand and eventually dance with her on stage. It was like a raucous church congregation: many danced in the aisles and at their seats, as if a musical spell had taken over nearly everyone.

Angelique Kidjo’s plea to “celebrate life now” is amplified by her music and interludes with messages of hope, commentary on social ills, and funny anecdotes. Her ability to be intimate and introspective, intriguing and inspiring all at once and to be a symbolic link between Latin music, African music, and African American music made the concert a fascinating spectacle with few peer and showcased her role as a vital artist in world music.

by Jeff Boyce

Texas Guitar Quartet & YK

Texas Guitar Quartet & YK
Cactus Café
Austin, Texas

This concert was a third in a new series of “Classical Cactus” shows held at the Cactus by the Austin Classical Guitar Society. This show featured UT music students past and present. Before the show began, there was a line stretching far beyond the door and the air was filled with people chattering about the legendary Cactus stage and how far they’d come to see the show. By the time everyone had filed in, the house was packed as people milled around to talk, grab a drink, or find a comfortable place to stand in the back.

The show began with a half-hour set by YK, who is studying for his Master of Music degree, and who dedicated his performance to UT’s graduate music students. He is a quiet performer, but though he didn’t engage in very much banter from the stage he more than made up for it in his emotive playing. YK kept his eyes closed whenever he wasn’t glancing at his sheet music, and he moved along with the impeccably plucked melodies. Though a serious performer, he still held a sense of humor about some of the absurdities that come with playing classical music. At one point, YK pulled out an extremely long piece of sheet music and battled to get it to stay on a music stand, a campaign met with a dusting of laughter from the audience and which solicited a chuckle from the man himself. What he plucked from his repertoire to perform was widely varied, from a typical classical guitar piece to a frilled-up version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.”

After a long intermission, the Texas Guitar Quartet took over the stage. They engaged in some banter about their newest member, a doctoral candidate at UT’s Butler School of Music, where the three other performers also honed their skills, and having to add new music to their repertoire. At one point in the show, playing at the Cactus was likened to coming home. First the quartet stuck to a more conventional classical guitar program, playing a Vivaldi concerto and three movements from Isaac Albéniz’s Suite española. The highlight of the show was when the group took a turn for the modern and played a piece written for the ensemble by local composer Mark Anthony Cruz just a few months before.

Though the quartet had at this point run through the whole catalogue for the evening, they pulled out a piece by Brazilian composer Paulo Bellinati. After this was a stunning rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s La muerte del angel, which was met with enthusiastic applause from the whole Café. As the applause faded and it became clear that there wasn’t any more to be heard out of the quartet there was a palpable craving in the room for one more tune. The want for and love of classical guitar in the Austin area was clear in the sheer number of happy faces left after the show.

by Marie Meyers