It’s Too Late to Stop Now: The Belfast Cowboys and St. Dominic’s Trio

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I stood at the second floor railing and tried to take in the commotion below me. My friend, Terry Walsh, had mentioned that the Belfast Cowboys, his nine-piece, Van Morrison cover band had been gaining momentum, but he hadn’t described anything like this. The Fine Line was booming. The dance floor was crammed and a couple was twirling in the aisle, forcing those around them to clutch their drinks to their chests.

“Caravan” ended with a cymbal crash and Terry kicked off the riff to “Domino” on his Telecaster. When the horn section came in he smiled and egged them on. Then he went up onto his toes and belted: “Roll me over Romeo/there you go/I think it’s time for a change.” “Here Comes the Night” and “Cleaning Windows” followed. The crowd sang along on the intro to “Jackie Wilson Said” and the horns filled the room on “Wild Night.”

As I watched Terry work the crowd I felt bittersweet. As much as I love Van, I wished the crowd had braved the cold to hear Terry’s music instead. I wanted to shout down at the dancing heads: “Where were all of you when we needed you?!” This is silly when you consider that the college kids below me would have been in grade school.

Terry and I met in 1989 when we worked together in an Uptown record store. One night as we were getting ready to close, I couldn’t place the music that was on in the store. The guy was a singer-songwriter with a good voice, but the music was punchier than the usual singer-songwriter journal confessions. There was some Pete Townshend in the acoustic guitar strumming and some early Joe Jackson in the singing. Terry was behind the counter, adding up credit card receipts when I asked him who was singing. He gave me a slightly embarrassed smile and said that since the store was empty he figured it’d be okay if he threw on his own music. I was impressed. I locked the door and cranked the stereo.

When our shifts in the record store were over, we often caught bands. This was the era of the Jayhawks, the Mighty Mofos, Static Taxi, Run Westy Run and many others like Sci-Fi Western and John Eller and the D.T.’s who were good fun even if they didn’t become household names. Also, underground bands from all over the country would come through on their way to or from Chicago. Seven nights a week someone interesting was playing somewhere in Minneapolis.

After shows Terry and I had a ritual of taking long drives and discussing what we’d seen and heard. We’d ride down the West River Parkway with the bridges and the railroad trestles high above us, then turn and follow Minnehaha Creek all the way to the lakes. We’d have the parkways to ourselves and the later it became, the more Van Morrison albums like Poetic Champions Compose and Veedon Fleece commented on the dark lawns and the over-hanging leaves.

During the day each lake in the Minneapolis chain has its own identity. Nokomis is where guys still blast AC/DC and Aerosmith from their muscle cars, Harriet is for families and Calhoun is for good-looking twenty year-olds. The only lake that doesn’t shed its daytime identity after the sun goes down is Lake of the Isles. There the mansions leave their lights on all night so you won’t miss their atriums, art collections, baby grand pianos and chandeliers.

One night Terry said: “Check out the lights reflecting off of the water.”

The evenly-spaced streetlights on the opposite side of the narrow bay were reflecting long, pale columns that revealed the water’s steady motion.

“Nothing in these houses,” Terry continued, “is as beautiful as those reflections.

That’s Terry. He reminded me of Jack Kerouac when he said that everything belonged to him because he was poor. We talked all night and were surprised when we noticed that the newspapers were being delivered. Before Terry dropped me off in front of my apartment building I took the plunge and offered to help get his new band off the ground.

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Terry Walsh and 2 a.m. began when bassist Bart Bakker dropped into the record store and suggested to Terry that they put a band together. Bart is a jazz-intellectual-type who isn’t quite as cynical as his caustic sense of humor might lead you to believe. He’s a fan of the jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus and like Mingus, (no, this isn’t a stretch) Bart is an incredibly melodic bass player. Whenever he performed with Terry I’d block out the other musicians for at least a couple songs and listen to Bart’s McCartneyesque bass carry the tunes.

The next member of 2 a.m. arrived when Bart introduced Terry to keyboardist and guitarist, Joe Loskota. Bart and Joe had been friends since Kindergarten and Bart’s first memory of being aware of Joe’s talent is when Joe played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” on piano for their entire school.

Joe is a soft-spoken guy who usually looks like he’s being quietly amused by whatever is happening around him and although it’s a cliché to claim, the guy can play anything. When St. Dominic’s Trio performs they’ll attempt just about any song request and Joe is often the one who comes up with the right keys and chord progressions. One night he made Terry’s jaw drop when he came up with the chords for: “Grease is the word, it’s the word that you heard, it’s got groove, it’s got feeling.” Terry has said that Joe is the most talented musician he’s ever known and if there’s another musician who I can cite to describe how Joe plays I haven’t encountered them.

Drummer Dave Haugen also came to 2 a.m. through Bart after they played together in a band called the Talkabouts. Dave is probably the nicest one of us and this is somehow evident in his playing. A music critic once said that in order for a rock band to have a great night the drummer has to be in a good mood. That’s how I think of Dave. The guy lit fires under 2 a.m. the same way his favorite drummer, Ritchie Hayward lit fires under Little Feat. Dave just lifted everyone, including the audience. There are few experiences more life-affirming than hearing a great drummer play live and I owe Dave (along with Terry, Bart and Joe) for a hundred and one nights of good rockin.’

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There was an assumption during the early-nineties that Minneapolis bands had to sound like either the Replacements or Husker Du. Even though “Kiss Me on the Bus” sounds like a song Terry could have written, Terry Walsh and 2 a.m. were more a cross between English pub-rocker Graham Parker and the “Rain”/Revolver-era Beatles. They were a pop band that rocked; more sympathetic than defiant, who I believed had the potential to become the Greg Brown(s) of the local Rock scene. Am I dropping enough names? I didn’t envision world domination, but of the band being so cherished by music lovers that we’d all be able to quit our straight jobs.

Okay, maybe I was envisioning a little world domination. What can I say? I was young and liked to announce to anyone who’d listen that I managed a real, live rock and roll band. Not that I fully understood what that entailed. To this day I have no idea what it means to “manage” anyone.

What I actually did was pester booking agents for gigs. Back then the two whales everyone chased were Steve McClellan at First Avenue and Maggie McPherson at the Uptown Bar. Steve was easier to get a hold of, but he was scary in the same way a bear is scary. Everyone knew he was the guy who’d built First Avenue and Terry prepped me by saying: “Remember, no matter what Steve says-he’s only testing you. He just wants to see if you’ve got what it takes. Don’t be intimidated. He’ll seem mean, but he’s actually a great guy.”

The first time I called Steve, he answered by saying: “You have exactly six seconds to tell me why I should be spending my time speaking with you.”

“Terry has put a good band together,” I managed to stammer, “and we wanted you to be the first to hear our demo tape.” There was a long pause and then Steve invited me down to First Ave. As I waited for the bus out on a bright, snowy Hennepin Avenue, I congratulated myself on breezing the big test. Steve obviously wasn’t as intense as everyone claimed.

Outside First Ave I had to repeatedly shout my name into the scratchy intercom before being buzzed past the heavy, glass doors. When I finally got inside, the silent club looked a little dilapidated and smelled like disinfectant and beer sweat. It was weird to be there in the middle of the day, but I climbed the steps and found the unmarked offices. Then I stood around like a putz while the First Ave staffers ignored me. There were gray desks, over-flowing ashtrays and sofas where brightly-colored fliers for up-coming shows were sliding onto the floor.

A punk guy with tattoos on his neck appeared to be on hold, so I walked over to his desk and asked if Steve was around. “Yeah,” he said without looking up from his desk calendar. No eye contact, no explanation, no greeting, just: “Yeah.” I stood there not knowing what to do with my hands and then went over to the sofas, slid over a pile of fliers and sat down.

Eventually a guy came out of a back office that I recognized from all of the times I’d seen him stalking around First Ave. Steve’s a big, scowling guy whose eyebrows wing-up like horn-rimmed glasses. He spoke to the tattooed guy and then before he could disappear back into his office I went over and introduced myself.

“You can tell Mister Terry Walsh,” he came close to shouting, “that he isn’t too big yet to deliver his demo in person. Tell him that the next time he wants to send me his manager.”

The tattooed guy was smiling.

“We’re not pulling anything,” I said, my voice shaking. “It was my idea to bring you the demo. I’m doing the booking so Terry can get the music together.”

There was another long pause while Steve looked me over with those wild eyebrows and then he took the tape from my out-stretched hand. Steve said that he’d always liked Terry’s music and that he’d give the demo a listen. I called back a week later and after Steve complained about the previous night’s attendance in the club he asked if we wanted to open for Boneclub in the 7th Street Entry.

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With Maggie at the Uptown Bar it was sheer quantity of phone calls. The Uptown was on the same block as the record store, so I’d go over in the mornings, order a warm caramel roll to go and find out of Maggie was downstairs in her office. Then, when I got back to the store, I’d start calling. Leaving messages didn’t garner results so I’d hang-up each time I got a busy signal or her answering machine. If I was lucky she’d pick up on my thirtieth attempt and say: “Yeah, I think we can put something together. Call me on Tuesday-I’ll know more then.”

On Tuesday, instead of every fifteen minutes, I’d call every five. Again, if I was lucky, she’d pick up by eightieth attempt and we’d have a gig. It’d be on a Tuesday, playing first on a three-band bill, but we’d have a gig.

Next would come the fun part. I’d swipe a picture from a magazine, usually something like old women cheering as cops load them into paddy wagons, and create a flier. I’d run next door to Kinko’s and then spend the next two weeks stapling them all over South Minneapolis. I’d slip fliers into customer’s bags and everywhere I went I’d try to convince people to come hear the band. We were going on early, I’d tell them, so they wouldn’t be dragging at their jobs the following morning.

Then on the night of the show I’d stare a hole through the front door. The band would wait as long as possible and then go on and play to the empty tables and the sullen waitresses. It’d be such a drag I wouldn’t even feel like drinking. I’d run through everyone who said they’d be there and picture them at home on their couches, complaining that there was never anything good on TV.

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One morning in the store an aging rocker-dude with long, thinning hair asked who I was playing. I said it was the band I managed and he said it was a real coincidence because he was also in the local music scene. He said we ought to put something together sometime. The following week he came to an acoustic set 2 a.m. played at the Loring Café. (These unplugged shows were cool because Bart would play his stand-up bass.) After the set the rocker-dude asked if we’d be interested in performing in a benefit to clean up the Mississippi. Not all of the details had been worked out, but it was going to be a kind of street fair on the West Bank. It was really, he said, going to be something. I checked with the other guys to see if they had the date open (and if they’d play for free) and confirmed the gig.

A few weeks went by and I began to think of all the questions I hadn’t thought to ask. I really became uptight when I couldn’t get the rocker-dude to return my phone calls. At the Loring Café he’d mentioned the name of the West Bank store that was sponsoring the benefit so I called their manager. She said everyone was excited to have us play and promised to send me all the information.

When the schedule arrived my heart sank. 2 a.m. was slotted to play in the afternoon, after All About Owls and before the River Critters Puppet Show. I called the manager back and admitted it was a little disconcerting to be opening for a puppet show. “Oh?” she said, “don’t you perform children’s music? We were told by (the rocker-dude) that you performed children’s music.” When I told her that we liked kids, but were a rock band a troubled silence came from her end of the line. Remember This is Spinal Tap? After I bowed us out of the gig I was tempted to ask if we would have had a bigger dressing room than the puppets.

Not everything was a drag during the 2 a.m. years (What?! We didn’t become as big as the Beatles?!). There were some magical nights, too, like the second time 2 a.m. played the 400 Bar. The 400’s stage was like a high shelf at the front of the room. After 2 a.m. climbed up there the bar filled up and as 2 a.m. played their set (“The Train Rolled,” “The Other Side,” “Uptown Express,” “Down Your Street,” etc.) they carried everyone along with them.

Another highlight was the first time we heard 2 a.m. on the radio. We were having a Saturday night card party when Cities 97 surprised us by playing 2 a.m.’s “Tenderly.” Terry and I just sat there with our eyes wide as our roommate, Mark Deeny, told his work buddies that they were hearing Terry on the radio. The guys sitting around our dining room table looked at Terry in awe and when Terry shuffled the cards he did it for three or four times longer than was his habit. That was the tell. I knew my friend was a couple of miles beyond happy.

2 a.m.’s best show occurred at the Uptown a few nights after Bill Clinton took the White House. We’d been suspicious of the motives behind Desert Storm (the war had inspired Terry to sing that it didn’t make sense to hate a spot on the map) and the night became another ritualistic, collective catharsis. If there had been rafters in the Uptown we would have swung from them. Strangers danced en masse on the checkerboard dance floor and the night climaxed with 2 a.m.’s encore of Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate.” This was, in my opinion, Joe’s finest moment on guitar. When “I Just Want to Celebrate’s” zero to sixty lead came in Joe made the Uptown lift off of Hennepin Avenue. Listening to Joe Loskota play his ass-off on guitar was like falling down the stairs without getting hurt.

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2 a.m. went on to release two albums: Harriet (“In the winter of ‘86 and seven the parkway stayed open. That might not seem like much to you, but for so long we were hoping…”) and Work and Hope. Work and Hope rocks and it should have built on Harriet’s critical success, but when it didn’t, 2 a.m. folded and Terry gave up music. It was a dark time.

A year or so later, Terry was dispatching for a limo company when his harmonica burst out of his work radio. A Vikings pre-season game was on and the 2 a.m. song “Your Way Out” had been used as bumper music to transition into a commercial. Terry was bowled over and as he listened to the rest of the game he heard himself three more times. For the next five years WCCO played 2 a.m. during Vikings and Twins games and for Terry it made a crucial difference. “I couldn’t believe it,” he told me, “it actually sounded like music.”

Terry formed the Belfast Cowboys, along with its smaller, pub-rocking, off-shoot St. Dominic’s Trio, in the summer of 2001. The collective of musicians he brought together consisted of members from his earlier bands: 2 a.m. (Bart, Joe and Dave have been playing with Terry now for over twenty-five years), the Altered Boys and Bowling Trophy, along with friends from the Mammy Nuns, Peal, the 27 Various, Love on Wheels, Fat Tuesday, the Idlewilds, the HeBeGB’s, Blue Plate Special, the Congo Eels and the Vic Volare Lounge Orchestra. The Cowboys rehearsed for six months before debuting at the 400 Bar on St. Patrick’s Day, 2002.

When Terry performed original music his goal was to write a song that would make someone, somewhere feel a little less alone. The decision to cover Van Morrison was driven by two new goals: to support his new family and to simply help people enjoy their lives a little more. The birth of his son had realigned his priorities. If he was going to continue to play live music it had to generate an income.

As “Tupelo Honey” faded Terry crouched down and picked his bottle of Summit up from the stage. He took a long swig, then stood up and said: “Here’s another belly-rubber for you.” “Tupelo Honey” had been preceded by “Into the Mystic” and I thought it was time to get the room jumping again. Three ballads in a row seemed like one too many.

Then Terry sang: “And all my love comes down…all my love comes tumbling down…” It was “Listen to the Lion,” the epic ballad from Van’s Saint Dominic’s Preview album. Up until this point in the show Terry hadn’t attempted anything this obscure or this daring. With his head to one side and his dark curls hanging in his eyes he sang: “Oh, listen…to the lion…inside of me.” There was sweetness in his tenor voice as he sang over Joe Loskota’s warm, chiming keyboards.

Two more verses followed before the chorus circled back and Terry began repeating, “Listen to the Lion…Listen to the Lion…” The tempo picked up and couples who’d been slow dancing pulled apart and danced across from one another. The women were better dancers, but the men danced with greater abandon. A hippie in a black skull cap looked enraptured as he swayed with his head back and his eyes closed.

The Cowboys chanted, the keyboards swirled and the cymbals crashed. An older guy, who was probably a Van Morrison fan before I was born, was shaking his head in wonder as Terry roared and growled into the microphone. Terry was channeling the Lion and everything was wide open. Then Terry took a step back and played progressively slower, Robbie Robertson-like harmonics on his guitar as the cacophony subsided back to its original, pulsating groove.

Even though I still wanted Terry to make it on the strength of his own music the catharsis the revelers were experiencing in the Fine Line was just as real as it was during the 2 a.m. days. Perhaps I’d been mistaken. Perhaps the distinction between Terry playing his own songs versus him playing Van’s wasn’t as important s as I’d assumed. After all, both sets of tunes had one, essential thing in common. They both had the power to heal. And who the hell knows? Perhaps in the end that’s more important than attaining world domination.

Author notes 2014:

-There’s one confusing aspect concerning the Belfast Cowboys and St. Dominic’s Trio. Why are there two bands fronted by Terry Walsh with the same pool of musicians covering Van Morrison? Here’s my take: when Terry formed the Belfast Cowboys he thought of it as solely a Van Morrison cover band and it didn’t seem right to play his own songs to a crowd who’d paid a cover to hear Van. At the same time, Terry formed St. Dominic’s Trio in order to play his own songs, plus covers by other artists he admired. St. Dominic’s Trio (actually up to five or six musicians on any given night) was looser and wouldn’t include the Cowboy’s horn section.

-Over the last dozen years both bands have evolved. The Belfast Cowboys now include original compositions in their set-lists (along with great covers like “Ophelia” by The Band and “Fool to Cry” by the Stones) and members of their horn section often turn up to play at St. Dominic’s Trio gigs. In some ways it’s even more confusing, but what the hell, the wild nights are still calling. The Belfast Cowboys and St. Dominic’s Trio average a hundred and twenty gigs a year and by 2013 Terry had played over a thousand shows.

-St. Dominic’s Trio plays every Tuesday night at Nye’s Polonaise Room in North Minneapolis. There’s no cover and it’s one of the coolest music scenes in the Twin Cities. Keith Richards once said that there is a different “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” every night of the week depending on who’s playing and who’s really on. There’s no doubt in my mind that there have been Tuesdays at Nye’s when St. Dominic’s Trio has earned the title.

-The Belfast Cowboys put out a self-titled, debut album in 2009 on Frozen Rope Records that consists of thirteen Van Morrison covers. No one can compete with Van’s vocals, of course, but these covers are worth checking-out because they rock so much harder than Van.

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-St. Dominic’s Trio also put out an album in 2009 on Frozen Rope Records. It consists of ten originals by Terry and is entitled Switch. The title comes from the phrase “bait and switch,” meaning: we’ll get you into the bar thinking we’re going to play songs by Van and then play our own tunes.

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-“Virtuoso” Joe Loskota put out a Jazz album in 2006 called Coming Home. On the album Joe played all of the instruments, including: keyboards, guitars, drums, bass and saxophone. You may have heard songs from this album on the Weather Channel.

-We made a mistake coming out of the blocks with Terry Walsh and 2 a.m. We never should have given the band a name that made Terry feel awkward every time he said it. My advice to young bands is that you’re better off calling yourselves “The Dreamers” rather than “Monica-Lynn Schneider and the Dreamers.” Don’t hedge your bets.

-Terry Walsh and 2 a.m. played a reunion show at the Uptown Bar a week before it was demolished so Apple Computers could sell more gadgets. 2 a.m. closed down the legendary bar with a cover of Neil Young’s “Everyone Knows this is Nowhere.”

-The Belfast Cowboys are currently recording a new album at Rich Mattson’s Sparta Sound Recording Studio in Northern Minnesota. The new album is split between Van Morrison covers and original songs by Terry. It will be released in 2015 and a live album is also in the works.

-When Terry and I walked out of the Fine Line after the show described above, we discovered that his car had been towed.  Welcome to winter in Minneapolis.

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Read more about The Belfast Cowboys and St. Dominic’s Trio here.