A New SXSW Documentary Follows The Rollercoaster Ride Of Saxon Pub's Survival

Mar 12, 2019

For the better part of three decades, Joe Ables was on an island, surrounded by used car lots and some dilapidated apartments.

He says when he opened Saxon Pub on South Lamar, it had little competition. The only other music venues nearby were the Broken Spoke and the Horseshoe Lounge. But over the last 15 years, South Lamar has filled in. There are more apartments, restaurants and businesses – and most of those car lots are gone. The Saxon looked like it would be headed out, too.

"Property values are so high," said Ables. "And when you’re paying that property tax, that’s a killer to overcome. And you're paying other taxes, but mainly rent has killed the venues, the rent factor. No doubt."

The real estate around the Saxon was being gobbled up, and the dirt underneath Ables’ bar was worth much more than the building itself. In 2015, Ables made plans to move farther out, but to a larger space. 

Jeff Sandmann, a camera operator who lived nearby and who was a regular at the club, wanted to get the club's story on film before it closed up shop.

That's when he started filming shows, interviews and performances at the club. That project became Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub, a documentary that premieres over SXSW Film at the Paramount Theatre on Wednesday.

Eventually, Sandmann brought on producers; the first was Lisa Kay Pfannanstiel. As she got to know the patrons and bartenders and musicians, she says, she "heard their struggles."

"They’re pouring their heart and soul out into jobs that we, as a community, should appreciate more," Pfannanstiel said. "And it became more and more evident that we should pay tribute to the Saxon Pub and everybody that made the club great before it went away or before it moved."

But making art costs money.

Joe Ables at the Saxon Pub with some regulars.
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon / KUT

So to get the film moving forward, the filmmakers turned to the artists who frequented the Saxon Pub stage. 

A Kickstarter raised nearly $50,000 from Saxon Pub's friends and fans. The first-time film collaborators brought in another producer, Jeffrey Brown, who helped bring other locally produced documentaries like Vinyl GenerationNo Noand Honky Tonk Heaven to the screen. The production schedule they initially intended to last months stretched into years, which isn't out of the realm of possibility for many documentaries. 

But, eventually, those delays and that uncertainty turned into a gift for both the story and the Saxon itself.

By the end of 2016, the Saxon Pub had a new champion in Gary Keller, the chairman of Keller-Williams, the international real estate company based in Austin. Keller helps run the All ATX foundation, which steers money toward Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM), The SIMS Foundation, Austin Music Foundation (AMF) and Black Fret.

Keller is also a big fan of the Saxon, and he offered to buy the building.

"[He] said, ‘If you stay there, I’ll buy it.’ I said, ‘Yes, of course,'" Ables said. "So, we’re good. He deed-restricted it. It will only be a music venue forever. So down the road, we’re going to be here."

For him, the timing couldn’t have been better. And there could be more help ahead for other struggling music venues in the near future. 

The City of Austin announced last week it's opening up its $750,000 creative-space grant program to struggling commercial venues. The grants can be used to supplement rent and other improvements, and it may, for a time, keep other Austin favorites around for a little bit longer.