Music to My Ears

Sean Costello

At times in everyone’s life someone comes along that thoroughly pisses you off.

Think of the night Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, along with a few other guys like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Jeff Beck, saw the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Bag O’Nails in London, November 1966. I’d give a nut to have seen the looks on those faces. I would. Really.

Then Jimi releases Are You Experienced, Axis Bold As Love, and Electric Ladyland, three of the most iconic records in rock, in the space of a year. Give me a fucking break.

I fell for Jimi just before he died. I still remember being in Moose’s black Galaxy 500 when the news came over the radio. I was 16.

Dear son Dean fell in love with Sean Costello around 2008. Dean wasted no time telling me what we’d been missing. I was driving a truck hauling meat cross-country so I had time to tape shit and listen during all those hours/days/weeks/months/years watching the lines slipping past, wondering what was happening in all those warm house lights I was leaving behind. I had (and still have) one of those little iPods and on it I had a copy of Costello’s first album, Call the Cops. Sean made this album when he was 16 years old. Dig this.

 

Yeah. 16. Pisses me the FUCK off. How do you get that good at 16? You know how. You start playing in the flippin’ womb. Must’ve been hell on Mom. And what the hell does he know from jelly roll? Sheesh. By the way that’s Paul Linden on that harp man.

At 14 Sean was growing up in Atlanta and the story says he caused a ruckus with his jamming in a Memphis guitar shop and an employee told Sean’s dad about a blues contest put on by the Beale Street Blues Society. Sean entered and won the contest. At 14. I barely remember being 14 except that was the year I learned how to roll a joint and was suspended from school for masturbating in the National Geographic section of the second-floor library.

Relax, I’m kidding. I didn’t roll a joint until I was at least 15.

Kids, this guy’s blues sensibility at 16 years old is just short of genius. When you listen to this next tune think of a kid sixteen years old that you know, maybe yer paper-boy or that runny kid at the 7-11 where you get your morning shot.

 

On St. Patrick’s Day yesterday, Dean and I were up late. We’d had our fantasy baseball draft, watched the NCAA Men’s Basketball Selection Show kicking off the greatest sports tournament of the year, and over some single malt Irish whiskey ended the evening/morning talking about Sean and the fact I was doing this column.

This was fortunate because Dean is a lover of all things Sean Costello and he had some insights I hadn’t considered. I had covered some tunes above from Call the Cops and my amazement was centered on how young Costello was to have such power on the guitar and the vocals.

Dean pointed out that what set Sean apart from other guitar heroes was continuing improvement on both his vocals and his guitar. I’m going to really piss some people off here but bear with me.

We talked a while trying to come up with another artist whose instrumental prowess matched his or her vocal range and development. I said Bob Dylan just to piss him off and he just smirked. I can’t get over on him anymore. Anyway. Clapton is a great player, but a mediocre vocalist. He can certainly sing but that’s not his forte. BB King might be the best vocalist the Blues ever created but his guitar work, although iconic and a part of his appeal and style, was not virtuosic and didn’t change much over the years. Nat King Cole had the voice of an angel and could play that piano but he gave the piano up to concentrate on singing. Stevie Ray destroyed the guitar but his vocals just supported his playing. Like Hendrix it was all about the guitar.

Jonny Lang and John Mayer are certainly in the conversation being great guitar players and vocalists. But even they’re in the back of the car with the windows rolled up when we look at how good Costello got in his career and how quickly.

In 2005, Sean met Levon Helm and Helm’s band Ollabelle appeared on Costello’s self-titled next album. Levon with The Band was known for eclectic style and song choices with a very wide range of Americana. Sean was impressed with how Helm could switch effortlessly between these styles and kill them. The album Sean Costello definitely showed the result and the evolving elegance of his playing, singing, and song writing.

This next from that album shows how his style was progressing as he experimented with tone and branched from the earlier straight ahead blues. Costello could still blaze when he wanted, but what was emerging was a player whose solos were thought out and played within the need of the song without having to show how good he was anymore. Here is “Father”.

 

With every album after Call the Cops the song became more and more important.

To show the difference his development made I have two from his last album, 2008’s We Can Get Together. Hal Horowitz critiqued for AllMusic.

“The material is so strong and the ensemble playing of his band so effortless that he doesn’t need to distract attention from the songs with the extended soloing he is capable of. Most importantly, he establishes a greasy groove that weaves through each cut, connecting them even when the styles differ. While Costello is clearly inspired by the blues greats, many of whom he has covered on previous collections, he slants more to ’70s Southern soul, rock, and R&B here, dousing these genres with a bucket load of swamp water and spearheaded by his whiskey-laced vocals. There’s a thick, gooey atmospheric vibe that hangs over the album, gels its contents, and shows Costello to be a terrific singer and songwriter and guitar talent just hitting his peak.”

So, from 2008 “You Told Me a Lie”:

 

This next is cool, fun, and nasty. Great combination. From Moanin’ for Molasses an R&B number “I Want You So Bad”:

 

Costello suffered from bipolar disorder and was a serious user. Bad combination. He’d had an early relationship with Susan Tedeschi that was certainly affected and eventually led to a breakup. Sean was so young the heartbreak was almost too much, very close, and there are several songs on his albums that illustrate how hard you can fall and how hard it is to get up. Artistically he kept growing but personally he was mortally wounded.

Two months after the release of We Can Get Together and the day before his 29th birthday Sean was found dead in an Atlanta hotel room with an overdose hovering in the air. This was the day after he told an interviewer he was clean and off the drugs forever. The autopsy revealed a mixture of heroin, ephedrine, and amphetamine. That bipolar shit got real and Sean Costello hit the exit.

But before I leave you I have a last comment. I was thrilled in my discussion with Dean last night that the only player he felt came close to this combination of vocals and instrumental virtuosity was Johnny Winter. Dig this man. Sean Costello and Johnny Winter in the same sentence. Winter was always at the top for me for his guitar playing and that unmistakable singing. So instead of ending with a Sean song, here is Johnny from 1970 Live Johnny Winter And, “It’s My Own Fault”. Rick Derringer on backup guitar.

Hey. It’s my column; I can do whatever the fuck I want.

Put the headphones on for this one mates.

 

Shiver me timbers.

Ok you’re still here so this is a short vid Remembering Sean Costello. The takeaways are he wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until after his death, and his parents started a fund for bipolar research.