Sean Costello’s star was definitely on the rise when he passed away a day before his 29th birthday. Known for his work with Susan Tedeschi, he’d released a number of solo discs to widespread acclaim. He’d also earned the respect of his elders; liner notes for this new compilation include a photo of Sean on stage with no less than Buddy Guy and B. B. King, two esteemed gentlemen who know their way around a guitar, and who know a talented newcomer when they see one.
Costello, who grew up in Atlanta, recorded his first album, Call The Cops, for Blue Wave records at the tender age of sixteen, following up with two on Landslide records. This collection features tracks from all three, interspersed with live recordings captured in three different locations between 1998 and 2002. While Costello’s influences included elements of R&B and jazz, the focus here is all blues, and it’s a fine collection indeed.
There never seems to be a shortage of young guitar slingers on the scene, but Costello combined dazzling dexterity with a musical maturity rare for his age. He understood that it’s not the notes themselves that matter, but what those notes say. And so we get fiery yet tasteful takes on a wide-ranging collection of originals and choice covers from the likes of Robert Johnson, Robert Ward (with Costello nailing that classic Magnatone amp sound) and spooky, minor-key Otis Rush (an obvious favorite).
Apart from guest turns by Tedeschi, who provides vocals on one track and rhythm guitar on another, it’s Costello’s working band throughout. None are particularly well-known names, but all acquit themselves admirably. Special mention goes to pianist/harmonicist Paul Linden, whose work on the lickin’ stick is genuinely revelatory – Linden manages to mine classic territory while keeping things remarkably fresh.
Costello’s guitar work is fully developed right from the start. Like the stereotypical ‘old soul,’ he seems possessed of a musical wisdom far beyond his years, his fretwork an object lesson in exquisitely expressive restraint. His vocals are a little unconvincing (no surprise, given his age at the time) on the earlier tracks, but he’s fully in command by the end of “She Changed My Mind,” the disc’s closer recorded in Atlanta in 2002. That vocal confidence and the assurance of his delivery were the final pieces of the puzzle, and by the chronological end of Sean’s Blues, it’s clear that Costello was a mature artist ready to make his mark. Sean’s Blues is a fine and fitting tribute to a life, and a career, cut tragically short.