Hall Monitors: Greensboro’s super cover band

by Jordan Green

The Hall Monitors move into their Wednesday night ritual at the Blind Tiger in the Lindley Park neighborhood in incremental fashion, with guitarist Marcus Horth -filling in tonight for Sam Frazier – sketching some light riffs, bassist Steve Clarke laying down the groove, powerhouse drummer Eddie Walker locking in the beat, and guest Tracy Thornton joining on bongos.

Ray Loughran, the singer better known as Walrus – whose imposing presence, agile voice and uncanny ability to conjure scenes of debauchery have made him a local celebrity from here to the downtown Rhinoceros Club – sways in the middle of the stage, making a throaty whistling noise vaguely reminiscent of some deranged surf music guitar solo. It’s not quite midnight and the show is just getting started.

The final member of the ensemble is still behind the soundboard in the back of the room adjusting levels. Keyboardist Dave McCracken is doing double duty tonight, allowing the regular soundman a night off. As the opening jam progresses he jogs across the dance floor and leaps onstage before seating himself behind the keyboard and plinking out a few tentative chords. It won’t be the last time he makes the commute from soundboard to stage.

The Hall Monitors’ music is a little more spacey and open-ended than Loughran’s own band, which is also named Walrus, and the singer’s madcap antics are commensurately subdued. In this guise, Loughran’s vocals are pensive and strained through a filter of mild disorientation. The lyrics seem to float above instrumentation that radiates like a smoldering volcano stoked by a funky hot core. It’s as if 1965 has hurtled suddenly into 1969, as if Wilson Pickett has magically morphed into Arthur Lee.

The band started almost by accident in August 2005.

Loughran was scheduled to play a Sunday gig, a notoriously hard night to draw a crowd.

“I said, ‘If you can get me Steve Clarke, Dave McCracken and Eddie Walker, I’ll do it,'” Loughran recalls. “Everybody’s always topnotch. It gives me a chance to take a break from Walrus.”

The Hall Monitors have turned out to be a steady gig, with the band booked at the Blind Tiger all four Wednesdays in December. Loughran’s own band, Walrus, is far from retired, with a scheduled gig across town at Backstreets the next night and having played the previous Saturday here at the Blind Tiger. The other bands booked Saturdays at the Blind Tiger are all either bands featuring Walrus alumni or members of the extended family. There was Loop on Dec. 2, a band formed by former Walrus guitar player Evan Olson; and Horth’s band, the Mantras on Dec. 9. Olson himself headlines on Dec. 23; and the Dickens, formed by former Walrus bassist Steve Graham, plays Dec. 30.

The Hall Monitors are, like Walrus, technically speaking a cover band. But there’s a reason the former band holds down the Wednesday night gig instead of the weekend, when the fraternity brothers and Junior League strivers elbow one another for space in the club. The mid-week crowd is weirder, populated by people who work odd hours and are more insanely committed to revelry.

The Hall Monitors’ covers are suitably obscure or warped enough to escape recognition from most ears.

“The good thing about seeing a cover band of this caliber is it’s always going to adapt to the crowd,” says Josh Berg, a connoisseur of local music with one foot in the indie rock scene and another in the bluesy jam band milieu anchored by the Blind Tiger. “There’s nothing about ‘clap your hands.’ They understand that the crowd is going to clap, sing along, hang out at the bar, whatever.”

Later he adds that the audience is “singing along with it. They know the song. They just don’t know who the fuck did it.”

And the songs? They range from the Doors to Blondie, from Phish to the Black Crowes.

By the time the Hall Monitors reach their encore it’s after 2 a.m. Joey Barnes, who plays drums for Chris Daughtry, has joined the band onstage for a rendition of the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/Ending.”

“Golden slumbers fill your eyes, smiles awake you when you rise,” Loughran and Barnes harmonize. “Sleep pretty darling do not cry, and I will sing you a lullaby.”

The stray sparks of a cigarette shower the doorway as a careless patron exits the bar, and drunken couples cradle each other on the dance floor for the last go-round.

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