They've played these songs under tents and in parking lots on St. Patrick's Day. In Irish pubs, too, of course, and bars that have long since closed. Even in radio studios at 7 a.m.
When the Belfast Cowboys deliver their trove of Van Morrison covers this Friday, though, bandleader Terry Walsh believes he's going to take those tunes to a whole new place.
"I know I'll never sing 'Brown Eyed Girl' again without picturing the actual Hollow in my mind," he said.
After 20 straight years of performing for Irish Americans and all the many wannabes in the Twin Cities on March 17, Walsh made a point of digging closer to the source of his material before the Belfast Cowboys' 21st annual installment — a holiday tradition that started at the 400 Bar in 2002.
He and the band's guitarist, Dan Kowalke, traveled to Northern Ireland three weeks ago. Their main objective was to take in any and all sites related to Van the Man, whose other nickname gave the Belfast Cowboys their band name.
While there, Walsh and Kowalke soaked up enough culture — and Guinness, too, of course — to come home with a deeper appreciation for the struggles and the soulfulness in Morrison's homeland that are at the root of his music and St. Patrick's Day on the whole.
"He's such a literal songwriter," Kowalke said of the Belfast native. "The things he saw, the places he went — they're all there in his songs. It was fascinating to see all that in person."
Arguably the most charitable musicians in the Twin Cities, Walsh, Kowalke and their bandmates raise thousands of dollars every Tuesday night as the pared-down St. Dominic's Trio with their standing gig at Driftwood Char Bar (previously held at the old Nye's Bar). Their dedicated fans/donors still raised around $500 three weeks ago when the band didn't even perform (because of the Belfast trip).
All that Driftwood gig money goes to Foothold Twin Cities, a charity Walsh runs with his educator wife, Amber Lampron. It helps families with schoolkids keep the lights and heat on and roofs over their heads — often single moms, often referred by school staff.
"We gave money to four referrals this week, but a lot more than four came in," Walsh said before their Driftwood gig last week. "The need is always there."
Tying his music in with the charitable aspect of what they do at home, Walsh and Kowalke said they were struck by the "very lower working class" of Morrison's childhood home and surroundings.
"You could see the shipyards from there where his dad rode his bike every morning, which is part of the lyrics in 'Choppin' Wood,'" Walsh recalled. "And then just about a half-mile away the houses start getting a lot nicer, and that's when we came up Cyprus Avenue."
The street of ritzy houses inspired the song of the same name on the seminal "Astral Weeks" album.
Among the other sites they saw straight out of Morrison's lyrical canon: his high school Orangefield Park, which he named a song after; Coney Island, a seaside park outside Belfast that became another title; the windows he worked on that inspired "Cleaning Windows," and their favorite of all: The Hollow, a lush green park with a creek running through it where he went "laughing and a-running, skipping and a-jumping" with a brown-eyed girl.
"I took a picture of it before I even knew we were there, it's that beautiful a place," Walsh said. "Being there just gave you a vivid sense of how special a place it must've been for him as a kid."
One other song that kept coming to mind on the trip — and that the band has pledged to learn — is "No Religion," a song that the politically complex Morrison wrote and sang about "The Troubles," aka the conflict between Protestants and Catholics that plagued Northern Ireland with violence from the 1960s to the 1990s. Walsh and Kowalke were happy to see that it's mostly in the past.
"Most of the people there didn't even want to talk about it," Kowalke said. "They've moved on."
While the guitarist has only a smidge of Irish blood in him, he's green enough at heart to also play in another group steeped in Celtic folk and other traditional Irish sounds, Locklin Road. Walsh, however, is about 95% Irish and comes from a big south Minneapolis family that takes St. Patrick's Day quite seriously.
The bandleader was quick to clarify: Even after 21 straight years and all the chaos it involves, he still loves playing St. Patrick's Day gigs, which some bands slog through simply as a good payday.
"It's a little more special to us every year because it's also the anniversary of our band — the first time we played," he said. "And it's always so much fun."
However, Walsh said he definitely does feel a jolt of inspiration coming into the holiday so soon after his trip.
"I feel a lot more knowledgeable about what it means to be Irish — and proud, really," he said.
Come next year, other members of the band will have made the trek, too: Concurrent with this year's trip, Walsh lined up gigs in Belfast for the full band to play in April 2024, including their Vic Volare-led horn section.
"I always made fun of the fact that nobody in the Belfast Cowboys had ever actually been to Belfast," Walsh said. "So it's about time we get to know the place."
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri.
Where: Hook & Ladder Theater, 3010 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: $20-$25, thehookmpls.com.
Also: St. Dominic's Trio, 7-10 p.m. every Tue., Driftwood Char Bar, 4415 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls., benefits footholdtwincities.org.