Sean Costello,
Sean's Blues: A Memorial Retrospective
(Landslide, 2009)

Sean Costello (1979-2008) was not just another hot-shot young, white blues-rock guitarist. There are plenty of those, and they are largely indistinguishable. Costello, however, lived and performed in another category altogether. Both a traditionalist and an innovator, he had chops, soul and something -- much -- to say.

His early and middle recordings -- examples of which appear on more than half the cuts on Sean's Blues, which is culled from CDs he released between 1996 and 2002 -- represent a fresh, sometimes exhilarating take on 1950s-style Chicago blues, while his later work documents an evolution in which jazz, r&b and Southern rock expand a blues core. Where he would have gone from there -- I suspect jazz, for which he had a manifest talent -- will remain forever an unanswered question. A victim of manic depression, he died of an accidental drug overdose in his native Atlanta.

Sean's Blues will give you the essentials, with 20 well-chosen cuts spotlighting the varieties of Sean Costello experience, including such pleasant surprises as the acoustic country blues "Sail On" (from Sonny Boy Williamson I) to "Big Beaver" (from Western-swing king Bob Wills) to "You Don't Know What Love Is" (from the sadly neglected blues-soul master Fenton Robinson). Costello fearlessly and successfully covers such immortals as J. B. Lenoir, Otis Rush and Robert Johnson (in a highly charged electric arrangement of the traditional "Walking Blues" -- here credited to Robert Johnson -- with Susan Tedeschi's vocal). Costello contributes a number of solid originals, not the least of them the especially appealing "Call the Cops" -- written in his mid-teens.

Though able to stretch out when so inclined or when necessary to fire up an audience, he was mostly too grounded to waste notes and too disciplined to fatten them when they needed no more feeding. In Costello's guitar art, every note counts. And he could sing, too. Unlike most of his Euro-American contemporaries, he did not attempt to emulate African-American vocal models. He made the singing and the instruments expressions of his own voice, literal and metaphorical. And he was just getting started. What a loss.

review by
Jerome Clark

19 December 2009

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