Sass appeal

You'll know it when Amy Steinberg takes the stage: You react. Whether she's solo or fronting The Amy Steinberg Band, the singer-songwriter grabs audiences with smartly crafted melodies and laugh-a-minute lyrics with lines like:

I light you up, I feel the heat rise, maybe take a taste or tantalize/I feel you inside, but I feel no regret, baby you're better than even the post-orgasm cigarette.

You can say this for Amy Steinberg: She says what she feels, sensibilities be damned.

"I just love to watch people who haven't heard some of my lyrics," she says with a laugh. "Especially men; they're so funny, they blush. They don't know how to react to a woman `talking about sex`."

That in-your-face, everything-goes attitude runs throughout "Sky High," the full-length debut from The Amy Steinberg Band. Produced by Londoner Andrew Coules, the disc is a genre-defying phenom loaded with hooks, anthems, dirty grooves, smarty-pants social commentary and, of course, spicy, sex-charged lyrics that tackle such taboo topics as masturbation and religion.

Had a run-in with the devil last night/he gave a little smile and said we are all on the same side.

"I toned it down for the album," admits Steinberg, fully aware of the social stigma attached to women who talk frankly about sexuality. "I didn't want to be known strictly for that."

The potential for prominence in other areas was there from the start. Born in Boston, Steinberg began studying classical music at age 5. She eventually lost interest when the contrast between a rigid classical curriculum and life as a rebellious teen-ager proved too great. Then a student in a performing-arts high school in Sarasota, she switched her allegiance to acting, quickly making a name for herself by winning just about every drama competition she entered. Steinberg thought she'd found her calling; after graduation, she headed north to seek a degree in theater, studying at both the Boston Conservatory and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. She left the classroom to join a production of the musical "Hair" that was touring Europe. But by the time she returned to the States, she was ready to close that chapter of her life as well.

"I realized that theater is a business where most of the time, if you are not a writer, you are saying other people's words: You're a puppet," she says.

She nonetheless wrapped up her theater degree and, in 1997, followed the path of so many others who were then streaming into Orlando seeking a piece of the city's sudden prominence on the national music scene. Steinberg began small, playing solo gigs at places like Java Jabbers, Chapters and The Go Lounge armed with only her keyboard and a near-lethal wit. Word spread quickly about the talented singer-songwriter who could bring down the house with comments like, "Some of my best inspirations come to me when I'm coming." Building on that growing buzz, she began her slow but sure-footed climb to the top of Orlando's local music scene.

For six months, Steinberg fronted the all-girl party-rock band Sosumi. But even though she says the group is "like a family to me," she felt out of place in the outfit and, with lessons learned from the experience, left to form her own group.

The Amy Steinberg Band -- with drummer Bea "BB Queen" Gayle, bassist Gabe Williams, and guitarist/backing vocalist Haui -- effortlessly accommodates Steinberg's musical mood swings, delving into pop, rock, funk, reggae and soul. When it is needed, the appropriate drama is present, bolstered by soaring progressions and just-right instrumentation. Front and center is Steinberg, leading the group from behind her keyboard with professional confidence and charisma.

"I like how it fills up the sound," she says of her lifelong friend, the piano. And although she's comfortable both playing and singing, she looks forward to the day that she can get out from behind the keys.

Vocally, Steinberg is a dynamo, combining the soft angelic beauty of Tori Amos with the full-throated attack of Aretha Franklin. There's even a hint of Ella Fitzgerald on jazzier takes. And even though she'll launch into a song like "I Rub Myself" or rattle off a few bedroom wishes, it does little to diminish the impact of her powerful material.

Her secret weapon, however, is a charming, fast-talking style of delivery that, by definition, could be considered a kind of rap.

From "Run Don't Walk":

Together as one we look on up, to the one in the mirror who fills our cup/Because god is a part of you, not a people, or a steeple or a place to get to.

Steinberg's hard work is paying off -- she has a fanatical following that sings along to its favorites, hangs onto her every word and begs for more when she's done. And recognition came from the masses last October when Orlando Weekly readers voted her an Orlando Music Award in the folk/acoustic category.

Steinberg also has brought her many talents full-circle; she teaches vocal and piano four days a week, with more than 40 students ranging in age from 6 to 60. That work allows her to make ends meet until she and her band hit the road. "I love it," she says of teaching. "It is rewarding. It's definitely purposeful. I was doing a lot of waiting tables."

Indeed, the experience offers more than just a steady income. "I'm learning as I teach," Steinberg says of her lesson plan. But the biggest thing she has learned is to respect herself -- important for an artist searching for an identity.

"I see nothing wrong with the things I talk about," she says defiantly. "I talk about s-s-e-e-x-x. ... We all do it, we all want to do it. ... It's a beautiful thing. It is the underlying thrust of the human existence."

Whatever the topic, Steinberg has one goal in mind when she performs.

"All I wanna do is make people feel good if I can," she says.

She's off to a good start.

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