NOTHING STAYS THE SAME: THE STORY OF THE SAXON PUB (2019)
Documentary. Directed by Jeff Sandmann
Jeff Sandmann’s SXSW 2019 Audience Award-winning documentary is just as much a tribute to Austin’s musicians as it is to the legendary live music venue established almost 30 years ago in the state capital of Texas. Featuring live performances and interviews with a handful of Austin’s finest performers, “Nothing Stays the Same” does a solid job of illustrating how this renovated dive bar became such a beloved part of the city’s history. As gentrification begins to take hold, property values increase, taxes are raised, and the Saxon Pub is forced to relocate.
The film opens with outspoken musician-humorist-politician Kinky Friedman on the mic addressing the diverse crowd at the Saxon Pub, “This is a hip crowd. This is a cosmopolitan crowd tonight. We’ve got people from Australia, Norway, Canada, and Northwest Austin I believe.” Friedman is one of the many regulars who occasionally grace the stage at the live music venue which has played host to over 22,000 performances.
Back in 1991 Austin became officially known as the Live Music Capital of the World thanks to the city’s 200 venues and music festivals South by Southwest (SXSW) and Austin City Limits (ACL). Times have changed over the last two decades as landowners including the city of Austin raised the rent and forced businesses to shut down. The music scene suffered a blow as established venues La Zona Rosa, Strange Brew, Soap Creek Saloon, and Liberty Lunch shut their doors. The latter once played host to Nirvana, Oasis, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Dolly Parton, Black Flag, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Dave Matthews.
Sandmann chronicles how Austin went from being one of the most affordable cities to live in which helped attract an influx of musicians decades ago to now being one of the most expensive thanks to exorbitant housing costs. The landscape changed overnight as hi-rise condominiums and office buildings rose from the ashes of forgotten venues like the Armadillo World Headquarters known to Austinites as “The ‘Dillo.” The Saxon Pub almost met a similar fate as owner Joe Ables is featured throughout the film discussing plans to move the bar, which resembles David surround by Goliath-like apartment buildings, from its South Lamar location to a more affordable part of the city.
“Nothing Stays the Same” became Sandmann’s feature debut spurred by an idea to pay tribute to the iconic venue while capturing the end of an era. Ables is seen showing the blueprints of the proposed new building to many of his regulars only to be met with a lack of enthusiasm. But wait there is a knight in shining armor in this story and I’m not talking about the prodigious scrap of metal in the parking lot that greets visitors upon arrival. Influential realtor and best-selling author Gary Keller whose philanthropy work includes the startup nonprofit ALL ATX which raises money for Austin’s music charities and aids musicians, pulls a Gubernatorial move granting an indefinite reprieve to the Saxon Pub in a move that neither Ables nor Sandmann expected.
Peppered with snippets of live performances and testimonials from local musicians that include Guy Forsyth, Patrice Pike, Joe Ely, Bob Schneider, and Hector Ward and candid interviews with Austin Mayor Steve Adler who’s quoted as saying “We’re not going to be the Live Music Capital of the World without live music venues,” the documentary is a real treasure for Austinites and a great introduction to the local scene for the rest of the world.
So, what happens next? That’s a good question and in one of my favorite scenes venue owners James White (The Broken Spoke), Steve Wertheimer (The Continental Club), Eddie Wilson (Threadgill’s), and Susan Antone (Antone’s) reflect on Austin’s music scene like Dons of the most powerful Mafia families coming together to discuss business while SXSW, Austin Chronicle Co-founder Louis Black serves as mediator. If there was ever any rivalry in the group it's imperceptible but as Michael Corleone once said, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
Now playing at the AFS Cinema in Austin. You can catch one last showing at 3:30pm on July 4th.