Walking into The Cave on Tuesday the 17th, we were greeted by the sight of Bill “Billy Sugarfix” McCormick resplendent in a green felt hat and tunic, making him look even more elfin than usual. He was playing the guitar and singing “Away in a Manger,” with slightly altered lyrics: “The little lord Jesus, asleep in the hey, everybody! Welcome to the 112th annual Evil Wiener Christmas Show!”
His math may be a little off, but that doesn’t change the fact that this event is a Chapel Hill tradition. The band includes Bill, Chuck Garrison (Chapel Hill’s dean of indie rock drummers) and bassist Groves Willer, a.k.a. The Nicest Man in Chapel Hill (who once had a benefit concert thrown on his behalf to replace his stolen bicycle, the Sonic Scout). They played one of their first shows at the dare-I-say legendary Hardback Café in the summer of 1992 (where Groves served jalapeno-marinated “evil wieners” for a quarter a dog) and played the Hardback’s holiday party later that year. Since then, the show has become the official kickoff of the scenester holiday season.
The Cave’s low ceilings were festooned with colored lights, and Santa hats sat atop the heads of bartenders Mouse and Michelle. Chuck, in full Kringle drag, had a pack of Camels tucked under the fur trim of his cap. (“There aren’t any pockets in this thing,” he explained.) When he wasn’t playing, Bill moved through the crowd with a sackful of bizarre candy and toys for the good little girls and boys.
By 10:30 the room was crowded as only The Cave can be. TVs played “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and tables were strewn with pages from holiday activity books for children. People sat happily with crayons, coloring scenes of Santa and snowmen or figuring out Kwanzaa word searches and Chanukah crosswords. (Here’s a hint: 3 Down is “latke.”)
Bill’s crowd warm-up included a ’60s-vintage Encyclopedia Britannica filmstrip. As the words to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” appeared on the screen, he invited members of the audience to read them aloud. “If you’re from up north and you’re sick of how southerners drive in the snow, read this line! If, like Jesus, you’re a Capricorn, read this line!”
Once we’d gotten past “God bless us, everyone,” the Wiener played a rollicking set that included old favorites like “Toy Store” (“She’s gonna come over and I’ve got a bottle of black cherry Soho”) mixed with songs from their new album, “Evil Wiener Presents Billy Sugarfix’s Lost Gumdrop Kingdom.” And let’s not forget the carols. “Do You Hear What I Hear?” was a popular sing-along, and “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” sounded like an EW original. One song featured a trumpet solo, but there were no trumpeters on stage. It turned out to be Michelle behind the bar, playing her horn in between pulling pints.
At least three times over the course of the evening we heard people say, “There’s a lot of love in this room,” at first in that self-mocking, “I know I’m saying something sappy” kind of way. But as the night went on, it sounded more sincere, as well as true. The event was a perfect combination of childlike fun and genuine warmth–a refreshingly un-ironic celebration of everything we would like to believe is true about the holiday season and a perfect antidote to the mall-stress realities that more often define it. At some point, possibly while Bill played “What Child Is This?”–on a saw–I decided that everyone on my list is getting an Evil Wiener CD for Christmas. Hope you like it, Mom.