Word started bouncing around a short while back that beloved South Lamar live music mainstay The Saxon Pub might be relocating to a new mixed-use development on South Congress Avenue.
Some longtime fans feared the worst: the Saxon was just the latest victim of South Lamar’s hyper-speed upscale redevelopment. The yuppies and hipsters had claimed another local icon, and the Saxon, like so many clubs before it, would join the ranks of “you shoulda been here when” landmarks.
But in talking with the principals, CultureMap has learned that not only is the Saxon’s proposed move beneficial from its owner’s standpoint, but that the Saxon’s current locale might live on as a separate, but complementary, live music space.
"The Saxon is my favorite place to listen to music in Austin," says Brandon Bolin, the founder and CEO of GroundFloor Development, which is overseeing the new mixed-use complex, dubbed St. Elmo’s Markets and Lofts.
"When I moved to Austin three years ago, the first show I saw was Joe Ely at the Saxon. I fell in love with the venue," Bolin says. Bolin, it should be noted, isn’t your stereotypical soul-sucking developer — he studied music at Belmont University in Nashville, heads a country-rock band, and has released an album, Shiver, on iTunes. "Music is my passion, but real estate development is how I make a living," he notes.
As it happened, Bolin says, Saxon owner Joe Ables sought him out about a re-location after seeing an Austin Business Journal article about the new project. "When [Ables] reached out, it was a cool thing, because we had always planned a live-music venue for the project. We want to create the best small-room listening environment in Austin — the best of the ACL Lives Moody Theater and the best of the Saxon in a 300-400 seat room." One hopes the giant, battered knight in armor who stands guard over the current joint will make the trip south as well.
Ables wrote an October 10 letter to the mayor and Austin City Council supporting the project, according to a follow-up article in the ABJ. On November 20, the council voted 5-2 for a rezoning of the property, clearing a large hurdle for the development plans for St. Elmo Markets and Lofts to move ahead.
Bolin envisions the new complex as a destination spot that includes condos, office space, a food market and food hall, presenting the type of eclectic, appealing allure of spaces like Chelsea Market in New York, Pike Place in Seattle or, Bolin’s original inspiration, the Mercado San Miguel in Madrid. Currently, the 9.5-acre site near the corner of St. Elmo Road and South Congress Avenue houses an Office Furniture Now warehouse.
As for Ables, who has run the Saxon on South Lamar for nearly 25 years (an earlier version of the club existed in the late '70s on the service road of I-35 near 38th Street), he wants to reassure Saxon aficionados that the news isn’t dire. "We’re fine," he tells CultureMap. "We’re not being bought out or forced out. It’s just a very interesting project to take a long-term look at. There will always be a Saxon Pub."
One bit of lagniappe, from Ables' standpoint, is that a newer, larger venue might also house the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, of which Ables is a board member. Also, he says, "We might keep both spaces and re-purpose the current [Saxon] for newer, younger bands to be able to play with less overhead."
A shiny new Saxon Pub may be a wonderful prospect from some perspectives, but longtime fans of the dark and crowded room across from an oil-lube emporium and next to a music store— one of the last fragments of funk on South Lamar — can be forgiven for crying in their beer, just a little.
The Saxon is home to legendary residencies. The late Rusty Weir performed there for 17 years, and Bob Schneider’s Lonelyland has been a Monday night fixture for 14 years. Denny Freeman, one of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s mentors and (more lately) Bob Dylan’s former guitarist, holds down the Friday happy hour slot at 6 pm. The Resentments got their start on Sundays in 1997, chaired by the late Stephen Bruton. The Saxon was basically Bruton's corner bar.
Bruton, a singer, songwriter, producer, actor and celebrated sideman to the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Bonnie Raitt, was the patron saint of the joint, both before and after he passed away in 2009. More than once, Bruton brought friends like Raitt, Delbert McClinton, Michael MacDonald and other A-list musicians in to sit in on the vest-pocket stage. No new venue, no matter how luxe, can replicate those sorts of moments.
Joe Ables knows that bars can move, but lore stays rooted in the heart. "I think of Stephen when I think of the best nights we ever had," he says. A new Saxon Pub — whether and whenever it arises — will have to make its own memories.