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Mike Flanigin keeps the spirit of Austin music alive with ‘The Drifter’

“The Drifter,” Mike Flanigin’s first solo record after two decades of playing Hammond B-3 organ in landmark local clubs such as the Continental and Antone’s, is one of the year’s most intriguing albums. With a star-studded guest cast of Flanigin’s friends including Kat Edmonson, Gary Clark Jr., Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmie Vaughan and ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, it was a sure bet to draw lots of attention.

But the real triumph of “The Drifter” is how vividly it represents what Austin music is all about at its very best. It could only have come from a musician who’s deeply grounded in the city’s soulful, rootsy bedrock, yet who sees no reason to be hemmed in by boundaries of genre and style.

Working with some of the area’s finest jazz, blues, gospel, classical, country and rock singers and players, Flanigin effortlessly shifts gears on “The Drifter.” It might seem incongruous to flow from a freestyle instrumental that opens with the mysterious sound of five bass clarinets, to a hard-hitting, punk-spiked rave-up, to a wee-hours, bar-band shuffle, to an exquisitely elegant string-quartet interlude, and beyond. But in Flanigin’s mind, it all fits — in large part because the Denton-raised player has absorbed all of the musical creativity Austin has had to offer since he moved here in the mid-1990s.

“You’re always a product of your environment,” he says, partly referring to the city, but also nodding to our immediate surroundings of Deep Eddy Cabaret, where we’ve met up on a hot summer afternoon. An Austin institution since the 1950s, the old-school bar houses a pool table and a keenly curated jukebox that helped crystallize Flanigin’s vision of “The Drifter.”

“While I was making the record, I came in here all the time and shot pool, and I would listen to that jukebox,” he said, marveling at the juxtaposition of acts ranging from the Ramones to Muddy Waters to Ella Fitzgerald to the Fabulous Thunderbirds. “I don’t think I realized it at the time, but I think it affected me. I loved hearing those transitions.”

Sunday at the Paramount Theatre, Flanigin and several of his “Drifter” compadres will bring those transitions to life onstage. Edmonson, who rose to prominence while living in Austin before moving to New York, is returning for the show, and Gibbons also will be on hand (a day after ZZ Top plays in La Grange for the first time ever).

Dallas gospel group the Relatives are part of the show as well, though leader Gean West, whose spoken “sermon” on the song “Tryin’ to Make My Way Back Home” is a highlight of Flanigin’s record, passed away in February. Vaughan, who frequently performs with Flanigin at the Continental Gallery and C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, has a festival date in Colorado on Sunday but takes part in a Thursday preview performance at Waterloo Records.

Other special guests may turn up at the Paramount, and Flanigin will expand the horizons of “The Drifter,” a tightly bound 35-minute record, with more songs that fit the theme. They’ll include a couple of tunes by Jim Croce, whose work partly inspired the longtime instrumentalist to start writing lyrical songs when he was going through a difficult personal stretch a few years ago.

‘That’s an album?’

Flanigin says he had no idea at the time that his catharsis would eventually turn into a record. “I really made it for myself in a lot of ways,” he said. “I never really thought about people sitting and listening to an album. But when I started kind of sequencing and putting the songs together, it did tell the story I was trying to tell of that time in my life.”

It was Edmonson who finally alerted him that the 10 tracks he’d finished mixing in a Shreveport studio with engineer Chris Bell were more than just a batch of recordings. “I didn’t really know I had an album until I sent it to Kat,” he remembers. “She was like, ‘Oh, you have an album.’ I was like, ‘That’s an album?’”

Not everyone agreed. When Flanigin tried to shop it to record labels, “they were like, ‘that’s not an album,’” he says. So he turned to Kickstarter. Last fall, his fans contributed $41,000 to help make “The Drifter” a reality.

On that Kickstarter page, which understandably played up the participation of his high-profile collaborators, Flanigin quipped: “Since I am the least known artist on this album, I’d like to tell you a little about myself.” Originally a guitar player — he plays an acoustic on the last two songs of “The Drifter” — Flanigin had toured with blues-rock band the Red Devils before moving to Austin.

He began learning to play organ about 20 years ago when Clifford Antone brought him into the house band as a guitarist at the classic Guadalupe Street location of Antone’s. “Every night, Clifford would say, like, ‘Hey, you’re going to play with Earl King,’” Flanigin recalls. “Or, ‘When the main band gets done, you’re going to play till four in the morning.”

There was a B-3 onstage at the club, and one night, Flanigin figured he’d give it a whirl. “It just felt natural,” he said. “I had an affinity for the B3 that I’d never had on guitar even though I’d played it for years.”

A two-year relocation to the Northeast at the turn of the century for family reasons led to Flanigin seeking out B-3 jazz great Big John Patton in New York. Patton became an invaluable mentor.

“He really taught me how to play,” Flanigin says. “I’d only been playing a very short time, and here was this legendary jazz guy. But he used to tell me, ‘Man, you can play.’ I had a long way to go, but he was so encouraging.”

Up in the Gallery

Antone’s had moved from Guadalupe to Fifth Street by the time Flanigin moved back to Austin, and the vibe of the club was different in the new location. But he caught a break a few years later when the Continental Club opened a new space upstairs, the Continental Gallery. Owner Steve Wertheimer allowed Flanigin to park his B-3 there permanently and gave him free reign over weekend nights.

When Flanigin teamed with first-rate drummer Barry “Frosty” Smith, the shows began attracting attention. Denny Freeman and Derek O’Brien, cohorts from the Guadalupe Antone’s days who Flanigin still calls “my heroes,” frequently took part, and soon Vaughan was on board as a regular collaborator as well.

Gradually, others started showing up, including Edmonson, who sang with the group one night and kept coming back. A mutual friend brought Gibbons to the gig, and the two quickly bonded, to the point that Flanigin will be in the band for Gibbons’ solo tour this fall. Flanigin and Escovedo inevitably got to know each other as fellow keepers of longtime Continental residency gigs. And he’d briefly played as a duo with Clark at Vino Vino five years ago, shortly before Clark’s career began skyrocketing.

So when it came time to make “The Drifter,” Flanigin knew who to call on — not for their name-recognition, though that’s a nice side benefit, but simply because they could help him realize what he was hearing in his head. And if such a star-studded album presents its own problems — how do you take it on tour? — Flanigin is philosophical about whatever may come from “The Drifter.”

“I always believe in the music above everything else,” he says. “I just believe that music will somehow figure it out for you, if I can put out a record with good music on it.” Mission accomplished.

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