Nothing Stays the Same: The Story of the Saxon Pub
2019, NR, 70 min. Directed by Jeff Sandmann.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 31, 2019
Nothing Stays the Same is the story of a near-miss. In 2014 the Saxon Pub, the legendary Austin listening room on South Lamar, was going to be forced to relocate because of rising rents and real estate deals. By 2016, the plan had collapsed – but this wasn't the same old song of an Austin club disappearing. Instead, it got an unexpected lease of life from a surprising source.
Longtime TV documentarian Sandmann's debut feature is a breathless guide to the beloved club, with its sticky floors and great sound (there's a suitably reverential tip-of-the-hat to "Best of Austin"-winning sound engineer Richard Vannoy, who's been on hand for more shows there than anyone other than the iconic scrap metal knight who stands guard out front). That he pivoted from a story that seemed headed to doom and gloom to something more optimistic is a testament to his skill. At the same time, Nothing Stays the Same is a little too scattershot, with dozens of voices and recognizable faces. Admittedly, as a film that focuses on musicians in residence for a local bar, most will only be recognizable to Austinites. Yet there is still something universal about the challenges facing owner/manager Joe Ables and all the regulars – onstage and in the audience – that define the Saxon.
Nothing Stays the Same strikes a similar motif to another SXSW biography of an iconic Austin venue, 2016's Honky Tonk Heaven: Legend of the Broken Spoke – that Austin's growth, in part driven by the desire to be near venues like the Saxon, is what's driving them out of business. However, Sandmann wisely puts some of the blame beyond Austin, to the wider shift in the music industry away from actually paying musicians for music. As guitarist Hector Ward notes, how's a musician supposed to make a living when their work is available for 3 cents a song on Amazon?
At the same time, the unrecognized elephant in the room is that Spotify rates are not the only part of the music industry that has changed: It's not just that rents are rising (although that is a factor) but that young audiences have moved away from the massed crowds that the Cosmic Cowboy scene could conjure in the 1970s, and old fans just don't go out five nights a week. It's not the only factor, but it is a factor, and it's a component that maybe should have been taken into account.
When Nothing Stays the Same is best is when it's about what it takes to survive, rather than indulging in handwringing: the flexibility, the raw business savvy melded with artistic vision that makes for great booking, and innovations like early evening residencies. That maybe there are good reasons why somewhere like the Saxon has lasted while others have folded or relocated. At the same time, there's a deep and cogent argument for how the Saxon Pub's survival is a case study for good policy and a calmer business culture.
For an interview with director Jeff Sandmann, read "Change Is Now," March 8.