The building at 1320 S. Lamar Blvd. had been the site of several clubs previously, but when Joe Ables and Craig Hillis opened the Saxon Pub in June 1990, 20 years ago this month, they created something altogether different than the earlier barfly incarnations such as the Boss’ Office, the Living Room and Madison’s. They brought quality live music and lots of it. Booking as many as six acts a night, from happy hour to last call, the small club with the giant knight in armor in front has hosted an estimated 17,000 sets. The club’s sound man, Richard Vannoy, who’s been behind the board for 19 of those years, likely has heard more live music the past two decades than anyone in town.
There were some lean years early on, but the Saxon has found its niche – older live music lovers who have to work in the morning and don’t want to deal with Sixth Street, Red River or the Warehouse District. “We were one of the first clubs to put the headliner on at the middle of the night and not at the end,” says Ables 56, who looks like a grey-haired Waylon Jennings. “There was some resistance from the acts at first, but they found out that a lot more folks will come out to see them if they can be home in bed by midnight.”
Because of such scheduling, the Saxon Pub is able to “turn the house” each night, like a restaurant, with a new crowd in at midnight, different from the one there at 6 p.m. According to liquor tax records kept by the Texas comptroller’s office, the Saxon Pub averages about $85,000 at the bar each month, which is not bad for a 150-capacity club.
It doesn’t hurt that the Saxon, thanks to the generosity of neighbors who are closed at night, has nearly 100 available parking spaces just steps from the front door.
Some of the acts who’ve come up through the Saxon include Monte Montgomery, Hayes Carll, Los Lonely Boys and Carolyn Wonderland, and the list goes on. Veteran acts such as W.C. Clark and Rusty Wier (who has a statue in his honor on display at the Saxon) made the Saxon their home club in town. The acts get 100 percent of the door and a little piece of the bar after the night’s receipts past a certain point.
Ables found the place when Madison’s was going out of business and hired Ables and Don Roberts, natives of Angleton who had started a small accounting practice, to audit their finances.
“I knew Craig Hillis from Steamboat,” says Ables, “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 381/2 Street in the late ’60s/early ’70s.
Hillis says that model Saxon Pub, owned by Richard Filip, “was where the songs, attitudes, and creative interplay between songwriters and pickers went down. It was certainly not the only place for such a bohemian salon, but it was significant.” Old Saxon regular Steven Fromholz was the first act to play the new one, which opened in an area not known for live music at a down time in the local scene. The Saxon Pub was pegged early on as a dive on a funky strip of South Lamar Boulevard where old guys with aloha shirts drank beer and talked about cool cars and the Longhorns.
But Ables says that being next door to the South Austin Music instrument store helped the Saxon become a hub for local musicians. The Bad Livers put the club on the map in the early ’90s with their Monday night bluegrass massacres, but the late Stephen Bruton’s endorsement helped establish the Saxon as a place where world-class musicians 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.'” Ables had just bought out his partners, so Bruton was a bit of a godsend. Not only did he pack the club every Sunday with the Resentments, but Bruton’s sets with his regular band often turned into superstar jam sessions. “One night, on the stage at the same time, there was Bonnie Raitt, Eric Johnson, Stephen Bruton, Michael McDonald and Mickey Raphael,” says Ables. Bruton also brought up his old boss Kris Kristofferson one night. “As soon as he started singing ‘Busted flat in Baton Rouge’ I thought my head was going to explode,” Ables says at the thought that one of his all-time favorite musicians was playing his little club.
The intimacy is a big draw for fans and musicians alike. Bob Schneider and Lonelyland have filled the Saxon Pub almost every Monday night for 10 years, with one of those only-in-Austin residencies, but the original home of Schneider’s acoustic singer-songwriter format was Stubb’s and then it moved to Steamboat. It wasn’t until Schneider and his band sat down at the Saxon, with the crowd packed around the stage, that Lonelyland really caught on.
“It’s a real family operation, with Joe, (wife) Judy, and now their three daughters there daily,” says David Cotton, who books the music at the Saxon, with input from Ables. “It’s clean, friendly and honest ” all the things that people don’t believe exist in music venues.”
When Ables’ parents celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary later this month, the party will no doubt end up at the Saxon Pub.
“We don’t do dollar beers or anything like that to get people down here,” says Ables. “Nothing against clubs that do that, but that’s not us. Our draw is the music.”
It’s been that way for 20 years and will remain so for at least 10 more. Ables, who also works in commercial real estate, recently signed a 10-year extension on his lease.
“I just can’t get the owner to sell me the building,” Ables says with a laugh. But make no mistake: Joe Ables and his staff and the musicians who play there own the building . They just don’t have the papers.