Archive for January, 2012

critic’s pick 213

Read what you will into the title of Leonard Cohen’s first album of new songs in eight years: Old Ideas.

You could explain it by saying the themes of these tunes are indeed old – or, at least, old hat – to Cohen. He’s been singing about love and death for decades, so why shift gears now? Maybe the perspective could be viewed as being purely personal. Cohen is now 77, so perhaps these are products of age. Or the album might simply be examining the kinds of fleeting mortality and earthy desire that have fascinated writers of all mediums for centuries.

There is a bit of all three in Old Ideas. They bubble to the surface in slow, stoic but very deliberate waves during the album-opening Going Home. The tune has God literally calling Cohen’s name before calling him names. “He’s a sportsman and a shepherd, he’s a lazy bastard living in a suit,” mumbles the Almighty. And sure enough, Cohen’s time is up. His journey is outlined in a whispery shuffle with vocals that sound as if the singer is confiding in us a dirty secret rather than his destiny. The song is sly, chilling and more than a little witty. But then those are pretty old ideas for Cohen’s music, too.

There is also a hefty level of serenity about these songs. Lullaby, for instance, enters like a hymn with a hum of keyboards, a light but cheesy percussive shuffle and the serenade of guitar and plaintive harmonica that set the stage for a kind of cosmic campfire. Then group vocals that fall just shy of doo-wop support Cohen’s hushed, half-spoken bullfrog singing. He may seem like a crooner from the edge of the Twilight Zone. But the song is no joke. It’s Cohen’s prayer for peace, a slice of nocturnal calm for nights of solitude and impenetrable darkness.

As with Cohen’s best records of the past two decades (including I’m Your Man and The Future), Old Ideas luxuriates in sleek, quiet, sage-like narration and tempos best described as glacial. Yet for all of the spiritual overtones, Cohen is still a man of the earth. He grumbles at the beginning of the jazzy glow from Anyhow like some ancient bluesman seeking forgiveness (“I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?”) while Banjo serves as a folkly metaphor wrapped in a very worldly restlessness (“I’m a broken banjo bopping on the dark infested sea”)

Lost at sea? Lost in the clouds? Old Ideas is both, at times. It seeks to knock at the door of the hereafter but still finds flickers of light, hope and heart in the here and now.

in performance: emmylou harris

emmylou harris.

“People keep asking me, ‘What is country music?’” remarked Emmylou Harris late into a supremely spirited 1 ¾ hour performance with her Red Dirt Boys band last night at the Opera House.“And so I tell them,” lowering her voice to a barely discernible whisper, “This is.”

With that, she sailed into a sterling cover of Old Five and Dimers Like Me, a sagely bit of honky tonk wisdom by the great Texas songsmith Billy Joe Shaver. It’s a masterful bit of writing, but unless the artist singing it has the requisite years of hard learning under his (or, in this case, her) belt, the song simply misses its mark.

“I spent a lifetime making up my mind to be more than the measure of what I thought others could see,” Harris sang with a voice that has only grown more worldly with the years. And while her band maintained a sound slightly more cosmopolitan than the Lone Star swagger the song grew up with, the very obvious sentiments of dance hall merriment nicely balanced the lyrics’ aged contentment.

It was a beautiful moment, but also a curious one. Harris can still run crop circles around most country stylists, even though she long ago abandoned – or simply outgrew – country convention years ago.

Sure, she still delivered classics like Hello Stranger, Making Believe and the regal Townes Van Zandt nugget Pancho & Lefty (which Harris helped introduce to the country and pop mainstream over 35 years ago) with a satisfying Americana flair. But a sizeable portion of the show was devoted to music from the singer’s last two albums, 2008’s All I Intended to Be and 2011’s Hard Bargain. Much that material flirted with loss and mortality, themes that typically scare the daylights out of country radio.

Some of these selections were country by default, such as Merle Haggard’s Kern River (from All I Intended to Be). This was no barroom serenade, but a devastating chronicle of a drowning and the mourning that comes in its wake. “It’s a mean piece of water, my friend,” Harris sang against a stark arrangement that grew out of a haunting drone designed on fiddle, accordion and bowed bass.

More affirmative was Harris’s placement of two Hard Bargain requiems (both Harris originals) next to tunes penned by their subjects. Harris’ The Road, a meditative recollection of country renegade Gram Parsons, prefaced the giddy Parsons classic Luxury Liner, which left serious instrumental space for fiddler Rickie Simpkins and guitarist Will Kimbrough to unwind in. Later, a lovely trio arrangement of Darlin’ Kate, Harris’ tribute to Canadian songstress Kate McGarrigle, led into the show’s highlight, a reading of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Talk to Me of Mendocino that seemed to dance with a ballet-like elegance.

The show had its lighter segments, too. Big Black Dog, which Harris used a jingle of sorts to promote animal rescue, sported a playful, child-like bounce. The singer even brought Bella, the canine that inspired the tune, onstage at show’s end. The wag factor was high.

Oddly enough, the performance kicked off with its most appealing spiritual postscript, a modestly rocking Hard Bargain self-eulogy called Six White Cadillacs – a tune that outlined Harris’ preferred means of transport into the hereafter.

How appropriate. Harris is setting herself up to be the same class act in the great beyond that she has always been here with us.

in performance: stanley jordan trio

stanley jordan. photo by keith major.

 Sporting a lean, lanky frame with hair straightened and pulled back, Stanley Jordan could have passed for a more casual version of Prince when he strolled onstage before a sold out crowd last night at the Weisiger Theatre at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.

To be sure, there is something of the rock star in the guitarist, from the vogue poses he would strike during solos to the general eccentricities of his pioneering “touch style” instrumentation. But at heart, there were all kinds of inspirations and performance personas at work in this often dazzling outing.

Though designed as a jazz concert, the repertoire seldom devoted itself to a single stylistic agenda. Jordan’s material, as well as his playing, revealed shades of R&B, pop, Afro-Cuban music, bop, swing and more. So what did he start with, following a brief solo segment that introduced the harmonic range of his touch style soloing? How about Debussy? He launched into a very playful arrangement of Reverie that swapped the composition’s impressionistic foundation for pop-flamenco grooves.

When it came time to incorporate the more flamboyant extremes of his technique, which had him playing guitar and piano simultaneously, Jordan opted for a version of the Horace Silver classic Song for My Father that played nicely off the rubbery acoustic bass of Paul Keller and the lighter Latin flourishes of drummer Kenwood Dennard. As for Jordan, the left hand handled piano while the right maintained guitar, allowing the tune’s robust melodic color to bloom.

But when Jordan applied his technique solely to guitar, where he tapped out multiple melodic lines and even a few bass phrases on the instrument’s neck, the stylistic range widened. Late into the performance, an unaccompanied reading of Eleanor Rigby bled into, following a few classical permutations, Stairway to Heaven. Jordan has employed both rock staples for decades as showpieces for his technique. While a bit flashy and busy in places, the tunes still proved arresting last night.

The Cannonball Adderly/Joe Zawinul gem Mercy, Mercy, Mercy was served up at encore time not as a jazz relic, but as a vibrant serving of instrumental soul music. Sure, the technique grabbed the spotlight. But Jordan’s unwavering sense of soul made the technical trickery seem like child’s play.

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winters of emmylou

emmylou harris. photo by mark humphrey/assoociated press.

It took place within the University of Kentucky Student Center Grand Ballroom, then one of the more active concert havens in town. John Prine and David Bromberg played there that same school year.

But the star of that February evening in 1977 was Emmylou Harris. At the time, she was amassing a commercial audience to match the devout fanbase that had been following her since introductions were made via Gram Parsons’ groundbreaking GP and Grievous Angels albums some four years earlier.

In many instances, Harris was already a star. The UK concert had sold out weeks earlier while songs from the singer’s then-current album, Luxury Liner – especially a swing-savvy version of the Chuck Berry nugget (You Never Can Tell) C’est La Vie and the Parsons-penned title tune – were getting more airplay from Lexington rock stations than country radio.

We recalled the great players that made up Harris’ famed Hot Band at the ’77 performance. There was the great steel guitarist Hank DeVito, who underscored Harris’ gorgeously plaintive singing on Making Believe. The show was also one of the last regional outings to feature Rodney Crowell in the Hot Band. He would leave to start a solo career a few months later with Kentucky-born Ricky Skaggs taking his place. Nearly stealing the show was famed British-born fingerpicker Albert Lee, one of the sleekest roots-conscious guitarists on the planet.

And then there was Harris, the heir apparent to the so-called “cosmic country” sound pioneered by Parsons. But she was clearly gravitating toward more traditional inspirations, too. Luxury Liner, in fact, was a testament to Harris’ Americana reach, taking on songs by A.P. Carter, Townes Van Zandt and The Louvin Brothers as well as by Berry, Crowell and Parsons.

With a folk-ish country soprano, a keen performance intuition and the country spirit of a true honky tonk angel  - albeit it, one schooled well outside of the Nashville city limits – Harris forged a sound and repertoire that redefined country for a college audience that was far more enamored of the then-fertile singer-songwriter climate than anything resembling the Nashville norm.

“Sometimes you feel like it’s a different person (on those songs) because my voice sounds so different,” Harris said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine last year. “But it is me. And I pretty much loved every song that I did.”

Wrecking crew: Harris’ musical voice didn’t shift nearly as much in the ensuing years as other voices did around her. A look back at her many regional performances from the past 3 ½ decades reveals a lot about the revolving door company she kept.

In Lexington alone, there were Rupp Arena concerts alongside George Strait, Willie Nelson and Leon Russell which led up to her grand 2002 set at the opening night of the T Bone Burnett-produced Down from the Mountain Tour.

There was the 2008 acoustic set at the Singletary Center for the Arts with Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller as well as performances in surrounding cities that placed Harris in the company of Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler and the famed bluegrass ensemble she dubbed the Nash Ramblers.

But stylistic change came in a huge way with Wrecking Ball. The 1995 album took the country sensibilities of her earlier music and stuffed them into a blender. As a result, the designs of Harris’ signing became more sagely, atmospheric and, at times, ghostly.

Supporting her was an electric ambience produced and performed by Daniel Lanois, who helped reinvent the careers of, among others, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and The Neville Brothers. And, as usual, there was a catalogue of 12 songs that spanned generations and genres. Among the composers: Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch and co-horts Lanois and Crowell.

Subsequent tours that swapped Lanois for Buddy Miller moved Harris even further from country terrain. As such, the Grammys rewarded Wrecking Ball with a trophy in the vaguely labeled “contemporary folk” category. Call it what you will. Her mid ‘90s music, while still full of country spirit, now possessed a brave electric orchestration that distinguished itself from anything in or out of Nashville.

“I don’t worry about maintaining my past success because my success has always been so modest,” Harris told me in an interview prior to a sold out Kentucky Theatre show in 1996. “But it’s been enough to give me a constituency where the only demand that they make of me is to keep surprising them.”

Bargain hunter: To say that Harris’ most recent album, 2011’s Grammy-nominated Hard Bargain, is something of a full circle project is an over-simplification. With Cage the Elephant/Patty Griffin producer Jay Joyce at the helm, the music could not be more removed from country. Yet, inspirations from her past enlighten the 11 songs Harris penned for the project.

She recalls mentor Parsons in the album-opening The Road, eulogizes longtime friend and frequent collaborator Kate McGarrigle in Darlin’ Kate and fashions a love story after the wartime courtship of her parents in The Ship on his Arm.

Perhaps in keeping with a career that is now over four decades old, there are also songs of mortality. Harris seeks inspiration from the newborn in order to wade through sadness on Goodnight Old World but drapes a civilization where “days are growing shorter” in solitude on Lonely Girl.

This is the mature and beautifully uncategorizable music that brings Harris back to Lexington for her very own night at the Opera House on Sunday.

“You get to a certain age when the life that has preceded you is going to be longer than what is ahead of you,” Harris told Jon Parales of The New York Times shortly before the release of Hard Bargain. “You just accept it. This is where you are at this point in your life. It wasn’t like there was a theme in my head when I sat down to write. The ideas came out of what was happening in my world.”

Emmylou Harris performs at 7 p.m. Jan.29 at the Lexington Opera House. Tickets are $45.50-$75.50. Call: (859) 317-5913 or (800) 745-3000. Or go to www.ticketmaster.com.

 

the new trio

stanley jordan. photo by keith major.

 The trio – can there be a more elemental or established musical configuration? Sure, the possibilities of what it can create are boundless. But in the end, what results is music created by three artists on three instruments.

Leave it to Stanley Jordan, however, to rattle those expectations around. The guitarist long ago introduced a revolutionary technique that involved tapping notes on the instrument’s fretboard to mimic the melodies and harmonies of two or three players. In essence, he can sound like a trio and still be the only musician on a concert stage.

The technique is practically old-hat for Jordan these days. Back in 1985, when his Blue Note debut album, Magic Touch, surfaced, his one-man-band guitar sound made him a jazz celebrity. But 25 years later, he has found an even more daring variation of the musical trio. He has developed a technique that allows him to play guitar and piano simultaneously.

“I get asked about that a lot,” said Jordan, who performs a traditional trio performance with bassist Paul Keller and drummer Kenwood Dennard at the Weisiger Theatre at Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts on Saturday. “If I’m doing a show with bass and drums and I’m playing guitar and piano, people go, ‘What is that – a trio or a quartet?’ The answer is it is definitely a trio. In my mind, I’m one person playing one instrument.

“Piano was actually my first instrument, and the touch technique I developed on guitar was very much inspired by piano. I wanted to do pianistic orchestrations on the guitar. And right from the beginning, I realized it was possible to play the two instruments at the same time. But I worked more on developing the technique for guitar. It wasn’t until the last five years or so that I began working on playing piano and guitar together.

“I approach it like a single instrument, though – one instrument with a really big tonal range. I try to blend them together, to make them sound unified.”

Listen to the series of Blue Note albums Jordan cut in the ‘80s and ‘90s and what you hear isn’t a guitarist promoting an unexpected technique as a novelty. He was also incorporating the stylistic influences of his contemporaries. Jordan’s Standards, Volume 1 album (the 1986 follow-up to Magic Touch) wasn’t a collection of familiar jazz classics, but rather pop tunes by The Beatles, Stevie Wonder and Paul Simon among others that exhibited his touch guitar technique without accompaniment or overdubs.

Jordan’s newest album, Friends, further shakes up the equations his techniques pose. It adds an array of guest artists – including guitarists Charlie Hunter, Mike Stern, Bucky Pizzarelli and Russell Malone along with violinist Regina Carter, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and saxophonist Kenny Garrett – to a session hosted by an artist who already masters the art of musical duplicity.

As usual, the stylistic range of the record is vast. Jordan digs deep into a beefy variation of the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps with Stern, a blues-swing-boogie version of the Katy Perry hit I Kissed a Girl with Hunter (an exhibition of Jordan’s piano-guitar symmetry) and a duet variation on the Romantic Intermezzo from Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra with Carter (where Jordan sticks exclusively to piano).

“I always try to make the music sound good no matter what,” Jordan said. “I’m always trying to mesh with whomever I’m playing with.

“Charlie Hunter, for example, is a very polyphonic player like me. He plays multiple parts, but plays them in more of a low register. So he’s more of a bass player who plays with an extra melody line where I’m more of a melody player who also plays a bass line. It was an automatic fit.

“Now, Mike Stern and I jammed on Giant Steps years ago in a hotel somewhere. I always wanted people to hear this arrangement. I mean, that song is so important for musicians who are serious about their craft. You have to spend some time on Giant Steps.”

But some of the most important music Jordan has been pursuing of late has little to do with guitars – one or multiple. He has been studying for a master’s degree in music therapy in hopes of finding ways to explore and promote music as a healing force. His degree is on hold at present due to his touring and recording schedules. But he regularly serves as an advocate and spokesmen for music therapy wherever his own music takes him.

“Being a MD was another career path I could have chosen because I like to help other people. But music is my favorite thing in the whole world. To discover a way to help others through music was a thrill for me.

“Music is the only stimulus that we know of that can simultaneously stimulate every area of the brain. It stimulates the brain, it stimulates the immune system, it elevates people on a spiritual level. That just shows you what a universal tool for healing music can be.”

Stanley Jordan Trio performs at 8 p.m., Jan. 28 at the Norton Center for the Arts’ Weisiger Theatre at Centre College in Danville.Tickets are $30. Call (859) 236-4692 or (877) 448-7469.

Credit Card Regulations: A mixed bag.

Asset Securitization Report August 18, 2008 Byline: Karen Sibayan In May, the Federal Reserve Board, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the National Credit Union Administration proposed new rules that restrict the pricing and collection of credit card accounts. More recently, the House Financial Services Committee approved a bill by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) that would rein in common credit card practices.

The Federal Reserve Board has received more than 27,000 form letters as responses to these proposals, according to its Web site. As of ASRs press time, the Board did not issue its own response to the comments.

One of the dangers of the proposed regulations is that they will not allow credit card companies to capture default risk over the life of a revolving line of credit. In other words, these issuers need to, in essence, periodically reevaluate such risk over time and not just at the time of the borrower’s account opening by charging interest rates according to the borrowers’ changing risk characteristics.

“The proposed rules are going to prohibit the re-pricing of credit card receivables in areal time’ by making card companies unable to make rate increase on existing balances,” said Glenn Schultz, a managing director at Wachovia Securities. He added that this will have the most impact compared with the other changes that include allowing borrowers enough time to make payments and regulating where payments will be allocated.

Fitch Ratings, in its July edition of Credit Card Movers & Shakers, said that it is closely watching these proposed rules from the Federal Reserve relating to credit card issuers.

The rating agency said that as currently drafted, these proposals could “represent the most sweeping rules changes for the credit card industry in recent history.” Gary Santo, a managing director at Fitch Ratings, said that the rules could prohibit credit card issuers from managing their card portfolios on an ongoing basis. “Issuers react to borrower behavior and manage risk in a fluid environment, and these regulations could hamper their ability to do so,” Santo said.

Aside from hindering credit card companies from actively managing their accounts, market players said that the regulation might decrease yields on existing card portfolios. However, Santo added that it is difficult to assess the impact of the pending legislation on credit enhancement levels for credit card ABS.

“When we consider credit enhancement levels on deals, we look at three main components: the gross yield, the monthly payment rate and charge-offs,” Santo said. “Although there is no one-to-one correspondence on these factors, they are not isolated from one another. In this case, even though charge-off rates are rising and are expected to reach 7% or more by year-end, the monthly payment rate and gross yields remain strong on credit card ABS, which could serve as an offset.” Wachovia analysts, in a recent research report, said that these new rules appear to potentially reduce the portfolio yield on most credit card master trusts. This is happening in conjunction with charge-offs rising, which in turn will likely limit the excess spread on credit card transactions.

“What you are seeing now is charge-off rates rising, which is not surprising,” Schultz said. He explained that charge-off rates went down to just below 3% following the bankruptcy reform act. However, charge-off rates are now rising to the 6% range, which is close to historical averages. According to Schultz, charge-off rates going into a recession usually run in the 7% to 8% range. “Our thesis has always been that underwriting in the consumer space is much more disciplined compared with mortgages, although delinquencies and defaults naturally rise during an economic slowdown.” Despite charge-off rates keeping within historical averages, the dual effect of these rates rising and portfolio yields decreasing could reduce the amount of excess spread that credit card deals have, although Shultz believes that even if portfolio yields drop down to the 5% or 6% range, there is still sufficient cushion there for investors, as current excess spread has remained robust at 7% on average. web site dillards credit card

He added that even though spreads in the sector are historically wide, the market has built the residential subprime disaster and credit crunch into these levels. The wide spreads, Wachovia believes, present a value opportunity.

Appetite Is Still There Credit card deals continue to be well received by investors as long as there is performance and liquidity to back them up, said Craig Leonard, co-head of U.S. syndicate at Barclays Capital. The bank was one of the underwriters on the American Express Issuance Trust 2008-2 transaction that priced in early August.

The deal was well received considering the negative news surrounding the company’s earnings release, which was coupled with similar news from other credit card issuers such as Citibank.

This is because despite the negative headlines, credit card metrics and structures have held up, Leonard said. “Portfolio yields have come down a little bit, but they remain sound compared with historical rates for the major issuers. These credit card trusts still have sufficient excess spreads.” Leonard added that they’ve seen some market tiering for credit card issuers but only based on seller servicer ratings.

Leonard said that the widening seen in credit cards is not, for the most part, due to the negative headlines surrounding the sector, but that “it’s across the board, in the entire consumer space, companies are seeing a downturn that, in turn, has caused spreads to widen,” he said. “In terms of fundamentals, the pricing on card deals is too wide and these bonds currently look cheap. Even though performance has deteriorated, we think structures are sound. But unfortunately this is a market driven by technicals, and that has had a negative impact on spreads.” Investor Perspective Credit card investors are not bullish on the product not only because of the increase in charge-offs, but also because of economic indicators that don’t bode well for the sector.

James Grady, managing director and fixed-income portfolio manager specializing in structured finance securities at Deutsche Insurance Asset Management, cited the negative impact of the most recent employment numbers that showed an elevated number of initial claims, even though there was apparently some noise in the numbers.

These numbers, which come on top of the banks’ increasing unwillingness to extend credit, could have a detrimental impact on the growth of credit card receivables and will further drive up spreads.

“Spreads are getting banged up pretty hard, and it’s been getting worse in the last couple of months,” Grady said. “The stuff that’s getting well bid is on the front end and very short stuff.” Not helping the sector is the possible impact of current credit card legislation. What causes investor concern is when the Federal Reserve, which is charged with both the safety and soundness of financial institutions and ensuring adequate consumer protections, takes the side of consumer advocacy instead of focusing more on the safety and soundness issue.

“Investors would prefer that the Fed focused primarily on protecting the banks’ interests,” Grady said. He acknowledged that the regulation might mitigate losses down the line, but he said that it’s essentially a “mixed bag on the impact that this will have.” Not allowing credit card companies to re-price risk might dry up access to credit, which is not good for everyone involved, Grady said. Regulation changes might ultimately cause investors to shy away from the market even more.

“When you know that political winds might change legislation and adversely impact investors, there’s not much for investors to do and this may force them to pull back from the sector,” he said. “You don’t want that right now, as the market already has the banks and Wall Street shying away from extending credit.” Issuance Projections Credit card issuance has been keeping the ABS pipeline busy in the absence of activity in other sectors, specifically the mortgage market. But will this continue with everything that’s happening on the legislative front?

Although the sector’s issuance in July was down compared with the average in 1H08, Barclays’ Leonard said that the current summer slowdown is not indicative of volume for the remainder of the year. “I think issuers will be opportunistic,” he said. “Whether they do a fixed- or floating-rate or long- or short-dated transaction will depend on market conditions. A reverse inquiry deal might also be an option when the opportunity presents itself.” In terms of Fitch’s outlook for volume in the second half of the year, Santo said that while the rating agency does not typically comment on volume, the common consensus in the industry is that credit card issuers may have been front loading their issuance, as evidenced by the steady volume in the sector year to date.

“Historically, you could look to the maturity schedules for these trusts and get a sense of the issuance calendar; however, portfolio management practices may also become a factor,” Santo said.

An example of a practice that could affect issuance is the reduction of credit being offered by lenders in the form of new credit or existing line management, effectively reducing the inventory available for securitization.

Wachovia’s Schultz believes that despite the fact that current spreads are wide versus the asset, this is not going to dramatically reduce ABS issuance in the credit card sector. For one, even if more restrictive regulation is implemented, Schultz doesn’t think this will reduce the overall profitability of the credit card sector, as there are many ways in which credit card companies could work within the rules and maintain their profits, such as raising initial interest rates for new customers.

He added that stricter underwriting standards are not as much of an issue with credit card companies because they’ve always had a different paradigm compared with the mortgage market, which is based on unsecured lending.

One of the dangers of the proposed regulations is that they will not allow credit card companies to capture default risk over the life of a revolving line of credit. In other words, these issuers need to, in essence, periodically reevaluate such risk over time and not just at the time of the borrower’s account opening by charging interest rates according to the borrowers’ changing risk characteristics.

“The proposed rules are going to prohibit the re-pricing of credit card receivables in areal time’ by making card companies unable to make rate increase on existing balances,” said Glenn Schultz, a managing director at Wachovia Securities. He added that this will have the most impact compared with the other changes that include allowing borrowers enough time to make payments and regulating where payments will be allocated.

Fitch Ratings, in its July edition of Credit Card Movers & Shakers, said that it is closely watching these proposed rules from the Federal Reserve relating to credit card issuers.

The rating agency said that as currently drafted, these proposals could “represent the most sweeping rules changes for the credit card industry in recent history.” Gary Santo, a managing director at Fitch Ratings, said that the rules could prohibit credit card issuers from managing their card portfolios on an ongoing basis. “Issuers react to borrower behavior and manage risk in a fluid environment, and these regulations could hamper their ability to do so,” Santo said.

Aside from hindering credit card companies from actively managing their accounts, market players said that the regulation might decrease yields on existing card portfolios. However, Santo added that it is difficult to assess the impact of the pending legislation on credit enhancement levels for credit card ABS. in our site dillards credit card

“When we consider credit enhancement levels on deals, we look at three main components: the gross yield, the monthly payment rate and charge-offs,” Santo said. “Although there is no one-to-one correspondence on these factors, they are not isolated from one another. In this case, even though charge-off rates are rising and are expected to reach 7% or more by year-end, the monthly payment rate and gross yields remain strong on credit card ABS, which could serve as an offset.” Wachovia analysts, in a recent research report, said that these new rules appear to potentially reduce the portfolio yield on most credit card master trusts. This is happening in conjunction with charge-offs rising, which in turn will likely limit the excess spread on credit card transactions.

“What you are seeing now is charge-off rates rising, which is not surprising,” Schultz said. He explained that charge-off rates went down to just below 3% following the bankruptcy reform act. However, charge-off rates are now rising to the 6% range, which is close to historical averages. According to Schultz, charge-off rates going into a recession usually run in the 7% to 8% range. “Our thesis has always been that underwriting in the consumer space is much more disciplined compared with mortgages, although delinquencies and defaults naturally rise during an economic slowdown.” Despite charge-off rates keeping within historical averages, the dual effect of these rates rising and portfolio yields decreasing could reduce the amount of excess spread that credit card deals have, although Shultz believes that even if portfolio yields drop down to the 5% or 6% range, there is still sufficient cushion there for investors, as current excess spread has remained robust at 7% on average.

He added that even though spreads in the sector are historically wide, the market has built the residential subprime disaster and credit crunch into these levels. The wide spreads, Wachovia believes, present a value opportunity.

Appetite Is Still There Credit card deals continue to be well received by investors as long as there is performance and liquidity to back them up, said Craig Leonard, co-head of U.S. syndicate at Barclays Capital. The bank was one of the underwriters on the American Express Issuance Trust 2008-2 transaction that priced in early August.

The deal was well received considering the negative news surrounding the company’s earnings release, which was coupled with similar news from other credit card issuers such as Citibank.

This is because despite the negative headlines, credit card metrics and structures have held up, Leonard said. “Portfolio yields have come down a little bit, but they remain sound compared with historical rates for the major issuers. These credit card trusts still have sufficient excess spreads.” Leonard added that they’ve seen some market tiering for credit card issuers but only based on seller servicer ratings.

Leonard said that the widening seen in credit cards is not, for the most part, due to the negative headlines surrounding the sector, but that “it’s across the board, in the entire consumer space, companies are seeing a downturn that, in turn, has caused spreads to widen,” he said. “In terms of fundamentals, the pricing on card deals is too wide and these bonds currently look cheap. Even though performance has deteriorated, we think structures are sound. But unfortunately this is a market driven by technicals, and that has had a negative impact on spreads.” Investor Perspective Credit card investors are not bullish on the product not only because of the increase in charge-offs, but also because of economic indicators that don’t bode well for the sector.

James Grady, managing director and fixed-income portfolio manager specializing in structured finance securities at Deutsche Insurance Asset Management, cited the negative impact of the most recent employment numbers that showed an elevated number of initial claims, even though there was apparently some noise in the numbers.

These numbers, which come on top of the banks’ increasing unwillingness to extend credit, could have a detrimental impact on the growth of credit card receivables and will further drive up spreads.

“Spreads are getting banged up pretty hard, and it’s been getting worse in the last couple of months,” Grady said. “The stuff that’s getting well bid is on the front end and very short stuff.” Not helping the sector is the possible impact of current credit card legislation. What causes investor concern is when the Federal Reserve, which is charged with both the safety and soundness of financial institutions and ensuring adequate consumer protections, takes the side of consumer advocacy instead of focusing more on the safety and soundness issue.

“Investors would prefer that the Fed focused primarily on protecting the banks’ interests,” Grady said. He acknowledged that the regulation might mitigate losses down the line, but he said that it’s essentially a “mixed bag on the impact that this will have.” Not allowing credit card companies to re-price risk might dry up access to credit, which is not good for everyone involved, Grady said. Regulation changes might ultimately cause investors to shy away from the market even more.

“When you know that political winds might change legislation and adversely impact investors, there’s not much for investors to do and this may force them to pull back from the sector,” he said. “You don’t want that right now, as the market already has the banks and Wall Street shying away from extending credit.” Issuance Projections Credit card issuance has been keeping the ABS pipeline busy in the absence of activity in other sectors, specifically the mortgage market. But will this continue with everything that’s happening on the legislative front?

Although the sector’s issuance in July was down compared with the average in 1H08, Barclays’ Leonard said that the current summer slowdown is not indicative of volume for the remainder of the year. “I think issuers will be opportunistic,” he said. “Whether they do a fixed- or floating-rate or long- or short-dated transaction will depend on market conditions. A reverse inquiry deal might also be an option when the opportunity presents itself.” In terms of Fitch’s outlook for volume in the second half of the year, Santo said that while the rating agency does not typically comment on volume, the common consensus in the industry is that credit card issuers may have been front loading their issuance, as evidenced by the steady volume in the sector year to date.

“Historically, you could look to the maturity schedules for these trusts and get a sense of the issuance calendar; however, portfolio management practices may also become a factor,” Santo said.

An example of a practice that could affect issuance is the reduction of credit being offered by lenders in the form of new credit or existing line management, effectively reducing the inventory available for securitization.

Wachovia’s Schultz believes that despite the fact that current spreads are wide versus the asset, this is not going to dramatically reduce ABS issuance in the credit card sector. For one, even if more restrictive regulation is implemented, Schultz doesn’t think this will reduce the overall profitability of the credit card sector, as there are many ways in which credit card companies could work within the rules and maintain their profits, such as raising initial interest rates for new customers.

He added that stricter underwriting standards are not as much of an issue with credit card companies because they’ve always had a different paradigm compared with the mortgage market, which is based on unsecured lending.

always the jazz singer

jane monheit. photo by vincent soyez.

That was the year her debut recording, Never Never Land, surfaced. It was a versed sampler of standards sung with worldly confidence and backed by a support team that boasted such esteemed instrumentalists as bassist Ron Carter and pianist Kenny Barron, as well as the famed saxophone alliance of Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman. The latter two were known for their groundbreaking work decades earlier with Ray Charles.

All in all, the recording was an impressive way of establishing one’s intentions as a vocalist. But then, Monheit, who was 22 at the time, was used to that. She spent her childhood plotting a singing career. She wasn’t shy in telling people about it, either.

“I pretty much knew that was going to be my vocation from the time I was tiny,” said Monheit, who makes her Kentucky debut next weekend with performances in Louisville and Richmond. “When I was a toddler, a pre-schooler, I knew I was going to be a singer. I told anyone I knew that.”

A lifelong New Yorker, Monheit absorbed the vocal inspirations of numerous pioneers in shaping the dynamic and romantic foundations of her own singing. Ella Fitzgerald was, and still is, obvious. You can sense shades of her vocal exuberance, lightness and phrasing in the giddy version of A Shine on Your Shoes that opens Monheit’s recent Home album. But an early fascination and respect for the singing of Judy Garland (“because of the way she fearlessly expressed emotion”) and a legion of Broadway-based vocalists (Barbara Cook and Bernadette Peters, among them) also made Monheit a favored draw in New York cabaret rooms.

But here is a curious addition to Monheit’s stylistic dossier: bluegrass. Her father was a banjo player instructed by Tony Trischka, one of the instrument’s foremost educators and performers. The links don’t stop there. Among the many artists that have struck up lasting alliances with Monheit is Mark O’Connor, the versatile classical and jazz composer/instrumentalist who was bred on bluegrass.

So prevalent was bluegrass in her youth that Monheit found herself at something of a crossroads early on between jazz and bluegrass/folk paths for her career.

“I grew up with a strong attachment to bluegrass,” Monheit said. “I went to more bluegrass shows than jazz shows as a kid. For awhile, I thought, ‘Man, do I want to be the next Maura O’Connell (the Irish-born folk singer who established a strong bluegrass/Americana fanbase after relocating to Nashville)?’ I mean, I was really into it.

“That’s why artists like Mark are heroes of mine. I could have died when he called me to play on In Full Swing (a 2003 O’Connor album of gypsy jazz and swing music that had Monheit singing standards like Fascinating Rhythm, As Time Goes By and Misty). Now when we play together, I’m always like ‘Can we play something folky like Love Has No Pride (a tune popularized by Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt)? What a way to work together. Mark wants to play jazz and I want him to play folk music.” 

Still, it is within jazz circles that Monheit’s vocal work has been best displayed. Among other early collaborators was trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who recruited Monheit as one of four champion vocalists (along with Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves) for his 2002 album of Jimmy McHugh songs, Let’s Get Lost.

The latter project – in particular, a beautifully hushed reading of Too Young to Go Steady – reflects the intimacy of her own fine recordings. While Monheit is more than at home in elegant orchestral settings, it is in small combo settings, like the one that dominates much of Home, that her singing truly glows.

As a result, it’s not surprising that she views her band – pianist Michael Kanen, bassist Neal Miner and drummer Rick Montalbano – as family. Granted, that’s a somewhat literal estimation as Monheit and Montalbano are also husband and wife. But the birth of the couple’s son Jack in 2008 also underscored the sense of kinship she feelst with Kane and Miner.

“Outside of parents and grandparents coming to the hospital, they were the first two people to hold my son when he was just a couple of days old. That says a lot about the kind of relationship we have. And I know that makes the music even more special.”

Jane Monheit performs at 8 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Clifton Center Eifler Theatre, 2117 Payne St. in Louisville ($33, $35) and at 8 p.m. Jan. 28 at the EKU Center for the Arts, 521 Lancaster Ave. in Richmond. ($25-$35)..

I’m 45, but Susan has made me feel 18 again; SELF.

Daily Mail (London) December 9, 2002 | Anderson, Amy Byline: AMY ANDERSON AS PART of our Matchmaker series, Self’s dating experts sent Susan Hinde, 40, an administration manager from Merseyside, on a date with Andrew Weavis, 45, an aircraft engineer from the West Midlands.

They met for dinner at The Hilton Hotel, St Helens, Merseyside.

Name: Andrew Weavis.

Age: 45.

Lives:West Midlands.

Children: Gemma, 18, and Donna, 15.

Job: Aircraft engineer.

Salary bracket: pound sterling40,000 to pound sterling50,000.

Height: 5ft 8in.

Favourite film: Blazing Saddles.

Currently reading: Old Gods Almost Dead by Stephen Davis.

What three words best describe you: Sensitive, fun and romantic.

Favourite items of clothing: My jeans and leather jacket.

What would be your ideal holiday: Malaysia.

Your most embarrassing moment: Walking smack into the glass door of a packed pizza parlour.

What is your worst habit: Being too soft.

What trait do you most deplore in women: Lying.

Relationship history: I divorced recently. site electrical engineer salary

Name: Susan Hinde.

Age: 40.

Lives: Merseyside.

Children: Robert, 19, and Jennie, 15.

Job: Administration manager.

Salary bracket: pound sterling15,000 to pound sterling20,000.

Height: 5ft 2in.

Favourite film: Somewhere In Time.

Currently reading: The Year Of Her Life by Liz Ryan.

Three words which best describe you: Creative, romantic and loyal.

Favourite items of clothing: Pink jumper and black leather trousers.

Ideal holiday: A Nile cruise.

Most embarrassing moment: I bought some shoes but picked up two different sizes.The shop assistants couldn’t stop laughing when I took them back.

Your worst habit: Smoking. site electrical engineer salary

Trait you most deplore in men: Drunken loutishness.

Relationship history: I married my childhood sweetheart in 1985 and we divorced in 1995. I’ve been single for six months.

Type of man you’re looking for: Someone intelligent, adventurous and funny, who’ll sweep me off my feet.

_To take part in Matchmaker, send a recent photo, contact details and answers to the questions above to Matchmaker, c/o Self, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT.

Andrew says: THE evening began rather badly because I couldn’t get into my hotel room with my key and all my belongings were inside. Reception tried with their spare keys but it was no good. I ended up being 45 minutes late.

Susan is beautiful. She wore a stunning dress and looked fantastic. She is great company, very attractive and funny.We talked about everything from past relationships to our children, careers, music, our cats and even football.

Before I knew it, nearly five hours had passed.

During the rest of the weekend, I met Susan’s children, her cats and her lovely parents,Wyn and Les, who all made me feel very welcome.

Susan also took me on the ferry across the Mersey – something I’ve always wanted to do. It was a wonderful weekend in the company of a very special person. I’m 45 but I feel like an 18-year-old again. I have not stopped thinking of Susan since we parted.

Susan says: I ARRIVED slightly early, feeling rather nervous, and saw a man looking over. But it turned out he was the photographer, who told me Andrew hadn’t changed yet and was locked out of his hotel room upstairs. I had a vision of him running around in his dressing gown, laughed and settled down with a drink to wait.

When Andrew arrived, I couldn’t believe my eyes: he looked so lovely.

He gave me 12 red roses, which was the most romantic thing anyone has done for me for a long time. I felt an instant spark between us.

After the meal, we went into the hotel lounge. In the middle of our conversation, my mobile rang. It was my daughter, Jennie, who was worried because it was past midnight. The time had gone so quickly that I hadn’t realised.

On Sunday, I took Andrew into Liverpool to go on the ferry across the Mersey. Everything felt very natural and we joked and chatted all the time.

It was really cold, too, so we snuggled up together.

When we arrived at my house, Andrew gave me a cuddly sheep that he’d sneaked out and bought earlier in the day. I collect sheep.

Andrew works in Edinburgh every other week, so we arranged for him to visit again in two weeks. Then we hugged and said goodbye. Later that night, he telephoned and we spent half an hour chatting. I can’t wait to see him next weekend.

AMY ANDERSON Anderson, Amy

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critic’s pick 212

“It’s a tough venue for that one,” admits Randy Newman at the conclusion of It’s Money That I Love, a coarse discourse on the not-so-cheap thrills affordable to those with, as John Cleese once put it in a classic Monty Python sketch on merchant bankers, “the most startling quantities of cash.” That the comment is made from the fabulous St. Luke’s in London with the BBC Concert Orchestra on standby just makes Newman’s new CD/DVD set Live in London all the more fun. It is an exquisite concert snapshot of the famed composer in all his sensitive and sardonic glory.

Newman has always maintained two contrasting performance profiles, neither of which involved a conventional band. The first is solo, just Newman and a piano. This is the setting he has operated within most over the years, from the 1971 album Randy Newman Live (his only other concert recording) to last year’s wonderful Lexington performance at the Opera House. The other is with a full orchestra. No guitars, no rhythm sections – just the piano and the majestic arrangements that have adorned Newman’s recordings for the past four-plus decades. Live in London dabbles in both.

The BBC Orchestra ignites the historical indignation of the album-opening The Great Nations of Europe, sets up the unsettling (yet quite beautiful) Southern deflation of Louisiana 1927 and underscores the discreet sentimentality of the gorgeous Feels Like Home. Like so many of the orchestral tunes on Live in London, the collaborations seem like hopeless mismatches at first – eloquent strings with broad Americana undercurrents backing an artist who sings in a scratchy moan that sounds like he has a perpetual head cold.

But that’s the Newman charm in action. On Marie, a drunkard’s confessional on the hurt and neglect he causes, remains as heartbreaking here as when Newman first recorded it in the ‘70s. Ditto for the album-closing I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, a song of profound hurt and isolation. It is brought to lovely but unnerving life with Newman’s mumbled singing and the orchestra’s reserved pageantry playing equally key roles.

The solo segments are just as powerful. God’s Song (That Why I Love Mankind), a guaranteed-to-offend requiem of the Almighty’s disgust at man’s inability to grasp spirituality, is one severe kiss-off of a song. Ditto for I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It), the hysterical requiem for rock stars who refuse to admit their commercial and artistic fortunes have long ago been spent. All you hear on the latter is piano, a keenly instructed audience (which serves as a bizarre Greek chorus of sorts) and Newman’s all-too-knowing vocals.

It all makes for a live retrospective of an American original that puts on brilliant display his dual means to musically celebrate and disturb.

slim chance

langhorne alim.

The Americana jamboree artist born Sean Scolnick sounds likes he could have grown up down Memphis way given the generous soul slant in his songs. Or he could have hailed from rural Mississippi when you soak in all of the rustic blues references. Appalachia is another possibility, for there are country ruminations galore. Or maybe he once called the streets of New York home because his songs leapfrog from jazz whimsy to punkish thriftiness all while possessing the performance immediacy of a singer in a subway.

So where exactly did the singer they call Langhorne Slim come from? Well, near Philadelphia – the suburbs, to be exact. His home was a town on the Northern outskirts called, you guessed it, Langhorne.

If you thought a lot of Langhorne, Pennsylvania exists within the music of Langhorne Slim, your chances of  being correct would be none to, well… slim.

“I’m proud to be from there,” Slim said. “I really am. But I was always an outsider. I didn’t really fit in as I was growing up. I feel like maybe music was born into me because my mother is a great singer and I’ve got some other musicians and artists in my family. But some of the isolation I felt in Langhorne, or perhaps feeling a little disassociated from what was going on around me, might have dictated a need to create or to spend time alone to learn how to play guitar and write songs.

“It wasn’t so much of an explosion of music that was going on in Langhorne. I think it was the lack of it that drew me into what I’m doing now.”

A series of a half-dozen indie albums – the best being 2008’s When the Sun’s Gone Down – spread the word on Slim. So did tours that placed him on the road with The Avett Brothers, Drive-By Truckers and The Old 97s, among others. But it was a mixture of sound (perhaps best described as rustic country-folk with a post-grunge sensibility) and a distinctive means of displaying it in performance (in a sort of punk hootenanny manner) – that earned the ears of steadily mounting fanbase.

“Maybe I’m a born freak,” Slim said. “But I’m mostly a lover of music. I’m a lover of entertaining. I love everything from theatre to music to painting. All of that cuts into my own art, but it’s not really a conscious thing.

“I grew up liking punk rock music, classic rock, soul music. Then I got into bluegrass and blues and Americana. To me, it’s all music – music that hits me in my soul.”

The hows and whys of that music interest him less. Like many newer generation indie artists, Slim sees genres like pop, country and blues almost like tourist destinations. Each is to be enjoyed, inhabited, and, to a degree, appropriated. But ultimately, none of those singular inspirations match the kind of musical intensity that ignites once those sounds are combined.

“When you’re writing music, you’re simply combining everything that touches you. Again, it’s not a conscious thing of ‘I want this to be country’ or ‘I want that to be rock ‘n’ roll.’ You go with the feeling that hits you.”

Still, there have been several prime inspirations. Slim may not have heard them on the streets of Langhorne. But he soaked them up through the airwaves and stereos around him.

“The biggest ones back in the day for me were Nirvana, Otis Redding, Leadbelly and Doc Watson,” he said. “They all came from different times and from different places, but they were all like explosions in my soul.”

Along with the assimilation of influences and a gift for songcraft came a love for the stage. Slim’s recordings, including 2009’s Be Set Free and an as-yet-untitled new album, cut with help from independent fundraising on the internet, may document the first two traits. But the latter, a performance style that sounds like G. Love were he rooted more in bluegrass and Grand Ole Opry-style country than funk and hip-hop, has established Slim as a significant concert draw.

“Playing live is what you live for,” he said. “It’s the moment when you stop thinking and start feeling. That’s what is still so appealing about it. And when it’s going the best it can, you’re not intellectualizing. You’re just going on animal instincts. You’re feeling more than analyzing or overthinking.

“Look, half the time I don’t even remember what happened after a show. I can’t tell you if I did a good job or a bad job. You just do your best to open yourself up and let the music roll out. That gives me great joy. When I’m look out into a crowd and see people singing along and connecting with these songs… well, it’s just an amazing, powerful and beautiful thing.”

Langhorne Slim performs at 9 tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Ave. with Holy Ghost Tent Revival and Good Saints opening. Tickets are $15. Call (859) 309-9499.

Netflix to delay delivery of Warner’s latest DVDs

AP Online January 6, 2010 | MICHAEL LIEDTKE Netflix Inc. will delay sending out Warner Bros.’ latest movies by nearly a month in a concession that the DVD-by-mail service made so it could gain rights to show its subscribers more movies over the Internet.

The 28-day rental moratorium on Warner Bros.’ newly released DVDs and Blu-ray discs is a first for Netflix, but it probably won’t be the last. Netflix hopes to reach similar deals with other major movie studios later this year, using the Warner Bros. agreement announced Wednesday as a template.

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s scheduled Jan. 19 releases of “The Invention of Lying” and “Whiteout” will be among the first movies that won’t be immediately available to Netflix’s 11.1 million customers.

The compromise gives Time Warner Inc.’s movie unit _ and potentially other studios _ a chance to boost the sales of DVDs, the movie industry’s biggest source of profits.

Nearly three-fourths of DVD sales are made during the first four weeks the discs are in the stores, so turning off Netflix’s rental channel during that stretch might spur more impulse buying among consumers who can’t wait to see a newly released DVD.

“If this causes more of our subscribers to drive down to a store to buy a DVD, we think that will be good for the entertainment ecosystem,” said Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer.

He downplayed the threat of a backlash among subscribers, reasoning that Netflix’s library of more than 100,000 DVD titles will give them plenty of other options to tide them over while they wait an extra four weeks. see here newly released dvds

Newly released DVDs account for about 30 percent of Netflix’s shipments.

Blockbuster Inc., which has been losing ground to Netflix in recent years, intends to continue renting DVDs as soon as they are released, spokeswoman Michelle Metzger said.

Warner Bros. doesn’t plan to ask Blockbuster to delay renting newly released movies because the video rental chain charges consumers for each title that leaves its shelves, and studios get a cut of revenue under their agreements with Blockbuster, said Warner executive Ron Sanders. By contrast, Netflix’s subscribers pay a flat monthly fee, typically ranging from $9 to $17, to get an uncapped number of DVDs through the mail.

As Netflix has been embraced by more households, movie studio executives viewed the subscription service as a growing threat to their lucrative stream of DVD sales. Warner Bros. began to publicly pressure Netflix to agree to a rental delay five months ago. in our site newly released dvds

By acquiescing, Netflix will get a steep discount on Warner Bros.’ discs _ savings that the company intends to use to expand the selection of movies and TV shows available for instant viewing over the Internet.

Warner Bros. already has agreed to contribute hundreds of additional movies to that service _ triple the current catalog. They will include many titles that have only been out on DVD for three to eight months.

Investors evidently liked Netflix’s strategy as the Los Gatos, Calif., company’s shares rose $1.81, or 3.5 percent, to $53.32.

Netflix currently offers about 17,000 movies and TV shows for instant viewing, but many of the selections are older or obscure titles.

Internet viewing has become increasingly popular among Netflix’s subscribers, especially with an array of devices that have made it easier during the past 19 months to watch the movies on flat-panel TVs instead of small computer screens. As more consumers watch video over the Internet instead of discs that get mailed back and forth, Netflix also reduces postage costs.

Netflix packages offering DVD rentals and unlimited Internet viewing are available for as little as $9 per month. That price has been attractive enough to spur the company’s growth as more consumers looked for less expensive forms of entertainment during the worst recession in 70 years.

Netflix added 1.7 million subscribers during the first nine months of last year, and as many as 1.2 million more were expected to join from October to December, thanks partly to the introduction of Netflix instant viewing over Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 3 game machines.

Movie studio profits have been hurt by the migration to Netflix and other low-cost options such as the DVD-rental kiosks run by Redbox. Adams Media Research estimates DVD and Blu-ray sales fell by 10 percent to $13 billion last year.

Warner Bros. and other movie studios already tried to prevent Coinstar Inc.’s Redbox from renting DVDs during the first 28 days of their release. Coinstar, though, has gotten around the restrictions by buying the DVDs through other channels, prompting a legal battle that’s winding its way through the courts.

MICHAEL LIEDTKE

etta james, 1938-2012

etta james

Some performers just know how to make an entrance. Take the great Etta James, for instance, when she took to the stage at the Kentucky Horse Park in September 1995.

Armed with a stampeding version of the blues/soul standard Feel Like Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home, she tore into an afternoon set (part of a festival bill headlined by B.B. King) like a bulldozer. Woe be to anyone that stood in her way.

It was hardly the most graceful of showcases for the extraordinary song stylist, who died yesterday at age 73. But that wasn’t always what James was about. Forget, for the moment, the immortal 1961 breakthrough hit At Last. James in performance could be as bawdy as a sailor. She could be intimidating, shocking and crass. Her version of Come to Mama that afternoon in 1995 was, simply put, not for the timid.

But that was part of what make James so outrageous. She remained, through her glory years and the tougher, drug-rattled times that came in their wake, a fiercely confident and commanding artist. And when the right song came along – like At Last, I’d Rather Go Blind or the comparatively lesser known Damn Your Eyes (which soul diva Bettye LaVette performed in James’ honor just last weekend in Louisville) – and met her fireball vocal chops and stage persona, man, could the sparks fly.

James was seldom represented well on albums released from the ‘90s on. 1989’s Seven Year Itch was probably her last truly solid recording. But there remain so many wonderful documents of her volcanic talent. Recommended listening: 1961’s epic At Last, 1962’s regal Etta James Sings for Lovers and 1970’s far nastier Etta James Sings Funk. Or for efficiency’s sake, just pick up the fine 2007 anthology Gold which leans heavily on material from the singer’s outstanding Chess albums of the ‘60s.

All are snapshots of a blues/soul hurricane’s glorious outbursts.

in performance: the branford marsalis quartet

branford marsalis

Some artists have a knack for song titles. Others, like the members of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, prefer taking them for test drives first and then hammering them into shape, just as they would with the actual composition.

Last night, before a full house at the Grand Theatre, Marsalis tried out a few new titles during a set made up largely of works to be featured on an upcoming quartet recording. The set-opening The Mighty Sword, a rugged bit of percussive swing that had pianist/composer Joey Calderazzo feeding off the youthful drive of drummer Jason Faulkner (and vice versa), was initially titled Twister. Marsalis said bassist Eric Revis vetoed that name.

Similarly, the title to the saxophonist’s own Whiplash didn’t seem to thrill the band, even though the music obviously did. It started as a lean, piano-less trio romp that embraced the speed and danger element of a thrill park ride before Calderazzo re-entered. Faulkner brought the tune home with a solo fortified by the tireless stamina of an Olympian.

But the kicker seemed to be a new Calderazzo ballad, which Marsalis said had been newly dubbed (as of last evening) with the Emily Dickinson-inspired title As Summer Into Autumn Slips. It was a lovely ensemble excursion set into play by Calderazzo’s plaintive introduction. But the autumn spirits eventually gave way to a tempest as the piece beautifully built to an ensemble boil with Marsalis’ soprano sax lead exhibiting Coltrane-ish intensity. The title, in this case, may just turn out to be a keeper.

Marsalis and Calderazzo served as the evening’s opening act, as well. The two kicked off the performance with a 45 minute set of duet compositions from their recent Songs of Mirth and Melancholy album. This time, the title said it all. The set featured four compositions that shifted radically from light impressionistic contemplations to joyride tunes full of daredevil rhythmic turns.

At its best, these two extremes meshed into a fascinating medley of Marsalis’ The Bard Lachrymose, which sported lovely exchanges between piano and soprano, and Calderazzo’s far more devilish Bri’s Dance. The latter was a wildly animated bop breakdown that effectively hotwired the performance’s playful pace and temperament.

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