'A worthy heir to Jimmie Lee Vaughan': Kim Wilson, Tinsley Ellis to honor Sean Costello

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A guest-packed benefit show to support the Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research is set for September 29, 2012, with appearances scheduled by Tinsley Ellis, Kim Wilson and Gina Sicilia, among others.

When you first heard Costello as a 20-something with his whole future ahead of him, with his soulful, emotive voice and his tasty guitar licks, it was tempting to compare him to Jonny Lang.

Born less than two years apart and both making their proper debut albums at the age of 16, the comparisons between the two were perhaps even more unavoidable. When you listened closer, though, there was much more to Costello than Lang ever was.

For one, Costello’s influences ran much more varied and deeper. I often like to describe a musician’s sound by listing the musicians who came before him that he sounds like. In Costello’s case, the list was mind-boggling in length and diversity. His guitar, to me, conjures up Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Keith Richards and Freddy King, among others. His gruff, passionate singing really sounded like no other but Johnny Taylor is his favorite singer and he probably drew a lot from him, along with Otis Redding, and Eddie Hinton. His music touched on Redding, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Bob Dylan, ZZ Top and Fats Domino.

I’m sure I am just scratching the surface, too.

Costello once stated that he “wanted that feeling I get when I listen to my favorite records. I wanted to take a different spin on every song. I was trying to make it all sound fresh.” His fresh approach to the old school blues, rock and roll, gospel and soul made him a worthy heir to Jimmie Lee Vaughan.

Before bipolar disease helped cut his life short in 2008, he had already released five solo albums, and appeared on stage and recordings by Susan Tedeschi, Levon Helm, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, James Cotton and Hubert Sumlin. Two posthumous recordings have followed his death, even as the Roots and Blues Benefit to support the Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research enters its third year.

This year’s event will be held at the North Atlanta High Center for the Arts. Dave Gross, Jon Justice, Truett Lollis, Virginia Martinez and members of Costello’s former band will also perform. Tickets are $25 in advance, and $30 on the day of the show.

They’ll honor a rising young blues star who didn’t soak up influences just by sitting around listening to records, though. At 18, he was the lead guitarist on Susan Tedeschi’s seminal Just Won’t Burn and played alongside blues luminaries like B.B. King, Guy, James Cotton, Pinetop Perkins and Bo Diddley.

Add to that the fact that he’d been making his own records for 12 years by the time he issued 2008’s We Can Get Together, and you’ve got a guy who’d been around the block quite a few times already.

After refining his sound over four albums, We Can Get Together found Costello really getting his groove going in every aspect. The guitar playing was concise, the vocals were fervent without being overly so and the songwriting was mature. It was a slam dunk to expand his fan base further.

At the time, I opined:

There have been a lot of newcomers to the blues scene over the last ten or fifteen years, but few have given more reason to be excited about the future of the blues than Sean Costello. He’s a completely developed package revitalizing the genre using more than a dozen years of experience most blues players don’t get in a lifetime. And he’s not even thirty yet. If he is this good on We Can Get Together, it’s scary to think how good he’ll be by the time he finally hits that milestone birthday.

As it tragically turned out, Costello died one day short of his twenty-ninth birthday. Besides that recommended release, he left us with four other albums to remember him by, as well as his sizzling sideman work with such luminaries as Susan Tedeschi and Levon Helm. But as far as Costello had come in his short time on earth, one could sense he hadn’t reached the ceiling of his abilities yet.

Regrettably, we’ll never know for sure, now.

Sean’s soulful throat, tasty guitar licks and quality songwriting with an unwavering reverence to his rootsy forebears was just the kind of talent that reinvigorates the blues and keeps it going for a new generation of listeners. Just as Sean Costello got excited about the blues from discovering Stevie Ray Vaughan — another huge talent who’s life was cut short — perhaps someday a Costello record will inspire a kid or two to dedicate their lives toward keeping this grandest of music forms alive and dynamic.

In the meantime, we have this terrific opportunity to remember a life taken far too soon, and to make something good out of that tragedy.

Researchers say bipolar disorder impacts nearly three out of every 100 adults. For more information on Sean Costello, or the third annual Roots and Blues Benefit to support the Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bipolar Research, go to http://www.seancostellofund.org/.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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