Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub (Documentary Review)

Every so often, a music venue can become as famous as the stars it produced. Like the joke about how if every baby boomer who had memories of Woodstock was actually there, its attendance would have swamped every part of New York State. Or how the clientele of Liverpool’s Cavern Club went from hating the Beatles to loving the Beatles to hating them again, before being replaced with tourists going through Cavern Quarter on a Beatles VIP Tour.

But those are not the only places with musical legacies. The Saxon Pub in Austin, Texas, has been a mainstay for live music since 1990. Featuring the likes of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, alongside local acts like Carolyn Wonderland and The Resentments, the pub’s history is rich. However, in the wake of rising rent costs and property taxes, the its fate looked to be sealed unless its owner Joe Ables and co. could play their cards right.

Due out on DVD and VOD on July 14, 2020, Jeff Sandman (Friday Night Tykes series, Dead End 2020) makes his directorial debut in Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub. His film aims to tell the pub’s 30-year story, from its beginning to its last-minute respite from closure. It covers the trials and tribulations that operating such a venue entails, alongside those of the musicians getting by on live gigs in the rapidly growing city of Austin itself.

The film won the 24 Beats Per Second award (basically Best Music Documentary) at the SXSW Film Festival in 2019, and the Best Texas Film award at the 2019 Hill Country Film Festival. It only got a nomination for the Texas Independent Film Award from the Houston Film Critics Society Awards in 2020, so there is no love lost between the state’s capital and its biggest city. Still, whether one is Texan, American, or from the other side of the world, is the film worth watching?

It certainly does not waste time summarizing itself, as the interviewees set out the premise. Not to mention it is backed by some lovely, if telling shots of the kind of properties that do not have to worry about rent and tax much (skyscrapers, corporate buildings) compared to still shots of the places that did (Armadillo World HQ, Liberty Lunch, etc). Change cannot be stopped, though that does not mean shutting down all the live music venues.

The same goes for why the Saxon Pub is important for Austin, despite admissions that it looks like “a shithole.” It is one of those deceiving-looks deals, or at least according to the film it is. In that, while the pub looks old-fashioned and cramped, it has a lot of history, is steeped in Austin’s culture, and has some good acoustics and sound engineering for live music. Plus, at least according to musicians like Patrice Pike, Ables treats the pub’s musical acts fairly. The film presents the place as a solid, key spot for good tunes surrounded by encroaching apartment buildings threatening to turn it into another condo.

The documentary could have put out the first 10 minutes as a taste test to get its message across. It works enough for the audience, as it starts getting into the meat of things past the 10-minute mark with the history of Austin, its live music, and the rises and fall of multiple venues alongside the Saxon. The recollections are quite interesting and charming, like the Saxon’s pre-Ables history as a variety of different bars (notably a lesbian bar, but one with a fire exit).

The presentation is simple and straightforward. Occasionally the stills have a fancy effect put upon them, but otherwise the film offers them and its performance footage past and present as is. A lot of the time it is within the Saxon itself, though there are some nice establishing shots of Austin from its high rises to its graffiti-laden walls. They present Austin as a particularly artistic city, but one under threat from costs- “Art thrives where rent is cheap.” The presentation, combined with the interviewees’ earnestness (notably John Chipman and the Saxon Pub staff), really help drive this message across in a convincing, understandable manner.

There is little that stands out as a flaw, significant or otherwise. The Saxon’s music is largely Blues and Folk, which might not do much for fans outside of those genres. Though even Blues-averse viewers can still appreciate the Saxon’s importance and the art vs property cost theme. Likewise, while it might have been nice to see more of Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson’s sets beyond stills, the focus on Austin’s homegrown tunesmiths ties in better with the film’s highlighting of the city’s culture.

So, yeah, Nothing Stays the Same is a strong documentary with a strong message told well. The direction is solid and straightforward and has some engaging interviews that relate charming stories. The music, for its genre, is top-notch too and adds to the film’s atmosphere. It is a must-watch for fans of live music and supporters of live music venues, while anyone on the fence is likely to pop down on the Saxon Pub’s side by the end. Thus, for these reasons, Cryptic Rock gives this film 4.5 out of 5 stars.


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