Steff Leal

Steff Leal at Rockwood Music Hall

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We were going to see the 8pm set at Rockwood Music Hall last night. We often check out the set before, to raise our chances of getting seats. This time, the artist we were going to see at 8pm was promoting the 7pm and 9pm sets. That raised my hopes that the 7pm would be good. I was wrong.

Steff Leal had quite a large crowd who cheered and clapped loudly after each song. So, my/our taste was different than the vast majority in the room.

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Steff played a solo set accompanying herself on the grand piano. She has a nice voice (very pleasant). She plays the piano well enough. Her songs are basically pleasant as well. So, what’s the problem?

It’s a compounding of things more than any one thing. Because of that, the order I list the problems in is less important than the fact that they are all happening at the same time (often).

  • The vast majority of her piano play is staccato in nature. To exaggerate for effect (in other words, to make my point a bit too starkly), I felt like she’s often playing a more complicated version of chopsticks. Rarely is either hand playing an actual melody or complex chord.
  • While she hits every note pleasantly, her voice isn’t rich. That might not be an issue at all, except that the piano isn’t filling in any sustained sounds (see above), so her voice is often the only thing hanging in the air, and it doesn’t hang thickly enough.
  • Everyone makes mistakes when performing live (everyone). I wouldn’t mention it, except that she made multiple mistakes in practically every one of her original songs.
  • She played four covers. Perhaps she doesn’t have enough originals (which would be fine). Unfortunately, her choice of covers didn’t seem suited to her. She played Cee Lo’s infamous Forget You. That song requires a bit more chutzpah than Steff musters (IMHO). She played one rock cover (which escapes me as I type). Again, a poor choice for a solo piano player. Her Dylan cover was closest to being natural for her.

When she performed her own songs, I often thought “That’s an interesting concept or lyric” and felt that I would be drawn in any moment. Unfortunately, with one or two exceptions, most of those songs drifted off course both lyrically and melodically. The lyrics stopped flowing and felt forced and the melodies (or bridge) tried to include too many fancy things.

So, the difference in our opinion and the rest of the crowd can easily be chalked up to different taste. It’s also possible that it was largely a friendly crowd, meaning friends/family that came specifically to hear/support Steff. At least it felt like that to me.

I have suggestions to fix the above problems:

  • Find a writing partner. It can even be someone who comes in after the song is finished, to edit/polish the rough parts. Many of the seeds in the songs intrigued me. They can be fleshed out better.
  • Add at least one more instrument (it could be as simple as a bass player who will keep the underlying melody going when the piano is quiet).
  • Perhaps hire a vocal coach (I’m less sure of this one, but it’s possible that this could obviate the need for more instruments).
  • Practice significantly more, to lessen the obvious mistakes during the live sets.
  • Work on filling out the piano parts, no matter how much effort that entails.

In other words, I think Steff has the ingredients to do a good job. She just needs a better recipe to follow.