From 2015, Arts&Labor site, by Michael Corcoran
The Saxon Pub celebrates its 25th anniversary this month and for all but a few months in the beginning, Richard Vannoy has been the club’s sound man. For the first 13 years, the Abilene native worked seven nights a week, but after a run-in with the Monday night headliner in 2003, Vannoy has worked Tuesdays through Sundays. “I said something and Bob Schneider didn’t like it so he fired me,” Vannoy, 63, says with a laugh. “So now I play softball on Mondays. I needed a night off anyway.”
Since the Saxon books three or four acts a night, and Vannoy has averaged 338 nights working per year, conservative math puts him in the sound booth for about 25,000 sets since 1990. That was the year Joe Ables and Craig Hillis opened the 150-capacity live music venue at 1320 S. Lamar Blvd. in the former home of neighborhood barfly incarnations the Boss’ Office, the Living Room and Madison’s.
Ables found the place when Madison’s was going out of business and hired the Angleton native, who had a small accounting practice, to audit their finances. “I knew Craig Hillis from Steamboat,” Ables said in 2010, “so I called him up and told him I’d found a club with some potential. He asked me ‘what do you see it as?’ and I said it could be a really good room for singer-songwriters. And he said ‘you mean like the old Saxon Pub?’ and the name just stuck.” The original Saxon Pub was an A-frame building on the Interstate 35 frontage road near 38 1/2 Street in the late ’60s/early ’70s.
In the beginning, the “new Saxon” continued the folksinging tradition, with such acts as Steve Fromholz and Shake Russell. The Bad Livers put the club on the map in the early ’90s with their Monday night bluegrass massacres, and then Rusty Wier and W.C. Clark were fave regulars. It was the late Stephen Bruton’s endorsement that helped establish the Saxon as a place where world-class musicians could cut loose.
“Stephen came by one day, in ’96 I think, and he said ‘I can’t get a gig in town. Can I play here?’ And I said ‘I’ll not only book you, I’ll give you a key to the place,” said Ables, who had just bought out his partners. Not only did Bruton pack the club every Sunday with the Resentments (whose residency reaches 17 years on Sunday), but Bruton’s sets sometimes turned into superstar jam sessions, as he brought up former bosses Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt on occasion. Bobby Whitlock of Derek and the Dominoes plays every week and you’ll catch Red Young when he’s not on tour with the Animals, plus Denny Freeman, who was Bob Dylan’s guitarist for so many years.
The walls of rough cedar provided great acoustics for loud rock, as well as folkies. There’s something else unique about the Saxon: to accomodate a working clientele, Ables put the headliner in the middle slot, which was originally met with protest, but now seems the natural way to go.
Vannoy (pronounced with a V in front of “annoy”) has been a sound man since following a bunch of Abilene musicians to Austin in the early ’70s. “I was in a band with (drummer) Bill Maddox and (bassist) Noel Kelton in junior high,” Vannoy recalls. “They were so good, even as 14-year-olds, so I asked ‘how much do you guys practice?’ When they said 4-6 hours every day, I knew I could never match that so I started thinking of other ways to make it in the music business.” Maddox, murdered by a deranged neighbor in 2011, played in his father’s jazz band at age 11.
Maddox and Kelton had a band in Austin with fellow Abilenians- singer/guitarist Keith Landers and keyboardist Stephen Barber- called Cadillac, which gave Vannoy his first sound man gig. “Steve and Billy wanted to play jazz-rock fusion, so they left to form the Electromagnets with Eric Johnson and Kyle Brock (the bassist, also from Abilene). Keith and Noel wanted to keep playing rock, so they started Johnny Dee and the Rocket 88’s.” Vannoy ended up working with the ‘magnets from ’72- ’74 and the Rockets from ’76- ’84 and learned a lot from both. “I set up the gear, drove the truck, I was the only roadie,” Vannoy says of his start in the sound biz.
“The Electromagnets were such incredible musicians, every night someone would come up to me and compliment me on my sound mix,” Vannoy says. “But I wasn’t really doing anything special. It was all the band.” That taught him to stay out of the way and do as little as neccessary. Johnny Dee, meanwhile, was a group that relied on great singing, so providing a clear vocal mix became Vannoy’s obsession to this day. “The number one complaint for sound engineers is ‘I can’t hear the vocals,'” says Vannoy. “If you’ve got the vocals right, the instruments will usually fall into place.” Vannoy says his favorite acts to work with, such as Guy Forsyth and Patrice Pike, are talented singers.
Ables says such an affinity is a key to Vannoy’s longevity. “He’s such a music fan,” says the club owner, who’s looking to open a bigger Saxon Pub at a new development on St. Elmo Street, though the 1320 S. Lamar St. locale will remain open for at least another five years. “I still get calls from him when he’s excited about a new band. He digs hearing live music night after night.”
In nearly 25 years, Vannoy has taken only one vacation. He says he has to keep working because “rock and roll doesn’t have retirement benefits.” He’ll stay on at the Saxon at least until Social Security kicks in at age 66, but, he said “I’m still keeping my other job.” After working until 2 a.m. most nights, Vannoy goes home to sleep for a few hours, then goes off to a parttime job with a rare book restorer.
“It’s a 70-hour work week, but I’m loving it,” says Vannoy, who has his sound system so dialed-in that he can sometimes wander about or get a slice of pizza next door. But taped to the wall of his sound booth is a page with the names of acts handled by a certain manager who insists that Vannoy remain in the booth at all times during their sets. Vannoy shrugs that 95% of his job is in the setting up, but he abides. “They might want more monitor, but that’s about it,” he says of possible mid-set adjustments.
“Joe is the owner, but this is Richard’s club,” says bassist Bruce Hughes, who plays three residencies at the Saxon Pub each week- Monday with Schneider, Wednesdays with Johnny Nicholas and Sundays with the Resentments- as well as occasional gigs with his own band. “Almost all clubs are terrible places to just show up and try to get a sound. You never know what you’re gonna get. But you know with Richard it’s gonna be consistent. One of the reasons the Saxon Pub is one of my favorite places to play in the world.”