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Blackstock: Saxon Pub puts locals in the limelight on 25th anniversary

Peter Blackstock
The Saxon Pub consistently packs in fans for regular residencies and special events, such as this show by Asleep at the Wheel during South by Southwest.

If Austin is in fact the Live Music Capital of the World, the proof is not in the annual festivals and seasonal outdoor events that temporarily put the spotlight on our city. More crucial to the claim on a year-round basis are a handful of weekly residencies at the city’s top venues featuring local musicians with world-class credentials.

Home to many of these residencies is the Saxon Pub, which marks its 25th year this spring. The South Lamar institution is celebrating this week’s slate of shows as its silver anniversary, but what’s telling is that the schedule isn’t full of specially booked events. Instead, the club is keeping it simple, highlighting performances by local artists who are at the core of the Saxon’s identity.

Anchoring the calendar are long-running residencies on Sunday with local all-star ensemble the Resentments and on Monday with Bob Schneider’s acoustic-based Lonelyland band. The late Stephen Bruton launched the former’s run in 1998; the latter followed suit in 2000. Well into their second decade, both shows still consistently fill the room.

“Sundays and Mondays are usually terrible in our business, but now they’re actually our best nights,” said Saxon owner Joe Ables, who opened the club in 1990 with partners Craig Hillis and Don Roberts and became the sole owner in 1996. The success of those shows helped lead to other popular residencies as well: Ables says blues guitar great Denny Freeman’s Friday happy-hour gig “is a madhouse,” and Wednesdays do well with singer-songwriter Walt Wilkins plus a happy-hour show by Johnny Nicholas & Hell Bent that regularly features some of the town’s top supporting players.

Such options, as well as similar first-class weekly choices at the Continental Club and a few other venues, often get taken for granted locally. “I used to call or write the media and say, ‘Hey, you’re not giving these guys any notice,’ ” Ables said. “But I don’t get mad at anybody not writing about it anymore, because I take it for granted, too.”

What Ables doesn’t take for granted is the future, especially since the Saxon sits along a once-sleepy stretch of South Lamar that’s quickly getting gobbled up by condo construction. Lots of chatter circulated last year after Ables acknowledged he was talking to a developer about moving the Saxon to a proposed complex at South Congress Avenue and St. Elmo Road. That’s still in the works, Ables says, but it’s more than two years away, and he still has a lease in his current location until 2020.

If and when he makes the move, he may well keep the original spot running with a new name and a different agenda. That could involve “lowering overhead on the shows, maybe turning the green room into a grill,” he said. “Becoming more of a pub, with no cover, and giving new bands a place to start and work on their action. I think we can do something a little different but continue to do music.”

Ables has a grander vision for the new Saxon, though much depends on investment capital that still has to be assembled. He says he’d like to build a place like Denver’s Soiled Dove, which has a restaurant at street level above an underground venue that seats a few hundred. He envisions still doing smaller shows in the restaurant space, along with an outdoor rooftop deck looking out over South Congress.

In addition to becoming a new showcase spot for music, the underground room could serve the music-related businesses that developer Brandon Bolin is seeking to lure to the complex, Ables said. “I want to be able to have the best, highest-tech audio-visual equipment, and if they want to have their meetings here during the day, I want to use the room,” he said. Ables also hopes to include an exhibit area for the Texas Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, an organization dear to him.

The present goal is for the new Saxon to be open by late 2017, Ables said. In the meantime, it’s business as usual at the original location, though “usual” is always evolving. A recent addition has been live-streaming of the Monday Lonelyland shows through a “Watch Live” link at This month’s Tuesday performances by country-folk singer-songwriter Hayes Carll also are being streamed live.

And while most of the anniversary-week shows feature local acts, Saturday finds Grammy-winning Nashville singer Mike Farris, a soul-gospel-blues belter who’s worked with Austin’s Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Double Trouble, in the 8 p.m. slot. Touring shows aren’t common at the current Saxon, but Ables says he’d likely do more of them in the proposed new place.

Even so, he wants to keep a heavy focus on hometown talent. “I still look at us doing a lot of local stuff,” he says. “We’ve got to continue that. Some type of old Austin has to hang around a little bit.”

Even if it means merging old Austin into the construction of new Austin?

“That’s exactly what I want to do,” Ables said. “Sometimes you have to move to make it continue to happen.”

Gruene Day

Also celebrating a venue-related anniversary are Pat Molak and Mary Jane Nalley, who have reached 40 years as owners of Gruene Hall in New Braunfels. The landmark structure’s history stretches back much further: Built in 1878, it’s renowned as the oldest dance hall in Texas.

Molak and Nalley are largely responsible for Gruene becoming a singular musical destination, booking major country acts on the rise such as George Strait and Garth Brooks as well as living legends like Little Richard and Willie Nelson. The past month has been a remarkably auspicious one at the hall, with performances by Loretta Lynn, Ryan Adams and Kevin Costner.

The great run continues this weekend with a Thursday-Friday stand by Asleep at the Wheel plus Robert Earl Keen on Saturday. Other highlights on the horizon include Jerry Jeff Walker, May 15-16, New Braunfels radio station KNBT’s all-day Americana Music Jam on May 17 and Delbert McClinton on June 6.