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Saxon Pub salvation gets an SXSW film with 'Nothing Stays the Same'

Peter Blackstock
The Paramount Theatre marquee outside the SXSW premiere of "Nothing Stays The Same," a documentary about the Saxon Pub, on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. [CONTRIBUTED BY PAUL BRICK]

A documentary about Austin music venue the Saxon Pub, "Nothing Stays the Same" traveled much of the same terrain as "Bluebird," a film about the storied Nashville songwriters venue that also premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival this week. Both movies covered the history of listening rooms with humble beginnings that became integral to their respective cities' music communities.

"Bluebird" was ultimately a tale of transformation: When the club inspired a a key set on ABC-TV's prime-time drama "Nashville," it became a national tourist attraction. By contrast, "Nothing Stays the Same" is the story of simple survival. Faced with relocation in the face of real estate realities, the Saxon got to stay on South Lamar when a local music philanthropist save the day late in the game.

Indeed, what's most interesting about "Nothing Stays the Same," which premiered Wednesday at the Paramount Theatre, is that the storyline itself changed as the film was being made. Speaking after Saturday's encore screening at Alamo Lamar just a couple blocks from the Saxon, director Jeff Sandmann explained that the initial motivation was to "just document this place before it goes."

Real estate mogul Gary Keller's purchase of the property in November 2016 changed everything. A potential move to deeper South Austin was scrapped, and today you can still walk into the Saxon at 1320 S. Lamar Blvd. and hear some of the best music in town, seven nights a week.

Most of the film, though, is a testament to what's special about the Saxon, which Joe and Judy Ables opened in 1990. Live footage of musicians performing intimate shows to a few dozen fans brings the Saxon alive onscreen. Interviews with the performers, the staff, the owners and others help flesh out the story.

Central to both the venue and the film is the late Stephen Bruton, who gave the room its signature residency when he formed the ever-evolving collective the Resentments to play there on Sunday nights more than two decades ago. "I think he built this stage, in a lot of ways," current Resentments member Jeff Plankenhorn rightly acknowledges in the film. This coming May will mark 10 years since Bruton's death from cancer.

The most fascinating interview footage in the entire film is a roundtable discussion at the now-shuttered Threadgill's South. Joining Joe Ables are Eddie Wilson of Threadgill's, the Continental Club's Steve Wertheimer, Susan Antone of Antone's and James White of the Broken Spoke. They share thoughts that elevate the Saxon's situation from micro to macro, examining how Austin's evolution is a constant challenge for all of the city's historic music venues.

After the screening, the filmmakers said this was actually the first time all five of those vital Austin club owners had been in the same room together. The full conversation between them ran about three hours. "We could make a whole other documentary just about that," producer Lisa Kay Pfannenstiel said. Here's hoping, as it would probably be fascinating, and historic.

Joe Ables rightly had the last word as the post-screening Q&A wrapped up. Noting the close proximity of the theater to his venue, he coaxed: "It's a short walk to the Saxon Pub. We're open right now!"