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The Blue Thumb Collection

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Album Review

Naturally, Sylvester is best known for the disco anthem "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," an epoch defining hit that has transcended its time. That song is absent on Hip-O Select's 2009 set The Blue Thumb Collection, a single disc that combines Sylvester & the Hot Band's two albums for Blue Thumb, Sylvester & the Hot Band (sometimes known as Scratch My Flower) and Bazaar, both released in 1973, adding two cuts from Lights Out, San Francisco, and resulting in a complete overview of his recordings for the label. These recordings are hard to peg: they certainly come from a specific time and place, an outgrowth of San Francisco's early-'70s hotbed of gay culture, and there's no question that the cross-dressing Sylvester was out at a time when it was rare, but he blurred boundaries in other ways, creating a funky cabaret act that stretched back to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith while incorporating the Coasters, James Taylor, Procol Harum, and Neil Young. All were heard on Sylvester & the Hot Band/Scratch My Flower, a record that defied categorization so thoroughly it found no audience outside of the already converted and, decades later, it still sounds like a transmission from another dimension. There's an easy versatility to the Hot Band, who slide out of the straight-up, old-timey blues of "Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)" to the steamy funk reinterpretation of "My Country Tis of Thee" without batting an eye, and Sylvester is equally flexible, singing with passion and power, nuance and grace, without ever leaving his falsetto. It's music that reads as camp but plays serious, which is why it's such a bracing listen: depending on mood, it can either sound like the best or worst thing ever, but in either case there's no denying the skill and purpose behind it. Bazaar is partially cut from the same cloth, containing the same genre-and-gender-bending, but it lacks the far-reaching historical scope of Sylvester's debut, sounding entirely of the now of 1973. Partially this is due to Hot band bassist Kerry Hatch serving as producer and songwriter, helping to push the record toward fuzzy, glamtastic guitars and modern funk, a move that may have been a necessary commercial consideration at the time. Despite all this stylish accoutrement, there's not really way to make Sylvester seem conventional: he commands and commandeers, twisting everything back toward the fantastic cabaret revue of his debut — not enough to get it there, but enough to keep this from being anything but ordinary.

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