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Sean Costello, 1979-2008

The tragic death of an Atlanta bluesman

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Shortly before 11 p.m. on Monday, April 14, Sean Costello checked into Room 157 at the Cheshire Motor Inn. The highly praised Atlanta blues singer and guitarist was winding down after a seven-week tour that carried him up to Vancouver, down to L.A. and finally, on Saturday, to an American Legion Hall in Smyrna.

Apparently while he drove to the motel on Cheshire Bridge Road, Costello was interviewed via cell phone by blues enthusiast Mark Wade of A1ArtistSpotlight.com. Since he'd burst onto the scene as an early teen, Costello had been lauded by blues purists for his warm guitar tones, his soul-bending riffs and especially the gruff voice that contrasted with his baby face. He was hailed as an innovator, and this year, since the Feb. 19 release of his fifth album, We Can Get Together, his distinctive takes on blues classics had gained even more notoriety in both the United States and internationally.

In a podcast of the interview on the A1 Artist Spotlight website, the musician's upbeat, easygoing demeanor came across like business as usual. He rattled off a Cliff's Notes version of his rise as a blues prodigy. He talked about performing with such artists as Levon Helm, Susan Tedeschi, Pinetop Perkins, Nappy Brown, B.B. King and Buddy Guy.

"I've played with most of my heroes," he told Wade with the characteristic quiet confidence that made his modesty seem sincere. "I've been very lucky."

No one had any way of knowing this was going to be Costello's last interview. The following day he was found dead in his hotel room, his life cut short on the cusp of musical greatness, and his death surrounded by mystery and speculation on the eve of his 29th birthday.

Costello's mother, Debbie Smith, and his stepfather, Glenn Smith, bought him his first guitar for his 9th birthday. Not long after, Glenn got a job as Southeast regional manager for a large carpet manufacturer, and the family moved from Philadelphia to Atlanta. The guitar came along with Sean and his younger sister Bridget -- the gateway to a musical obsession that grew with each passing year.

"Sean was a blues historian," his stepfather explains. "He could tell you stories about all of the old blues players and he listened to everything. He loved the blues, jazz, gospel music and rock 'n' roll, and he could play it all, even the alternative stuff. But he really loved the blues. In my garage, I have about 5,000 records, tapes and CDs that he bought. And he read books and books and books about music."

By the time he was 11, Costello was practicing every day, riffing on the metallic licks of everyone from Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin to Guns N' Roses.

"When we bought him his first amp, you can't imagine the noises he made," Smith recalls. "People would come over and say, 'How can you stand that noise?' I guess we just tuned it out after a while. But at one point I remember hearing music coming from downstairs, and I realized that it was Sean playing everything that he heard on MTV, and playing it exactly."

When Costello was 13, Smith took him to a guitar show at the Cobb Galleria Convention Center. The boy approached a Rickenbacker booth and asked if he could play one of the guitars on display. The clerk refused, saying it was the company's policy not to allow its instruments to be handled by children.

So Costello walked across the aisle to a Gibson booth and asked to play one of their guitars. The clerk handed him the one he wanted to see and plugged it into an amp. Costello began playing "Hey Joe" by Jimi Hendrix. His rendition was so powerful, Glenn recalls, that a sizable crowd gathered around to watch.

As soon as Costello was done, the Rickenbacker representative dashed across the aisle and said, "Here kid! Play this guitar!"

"No thanks," Sean replied. "I already played."

Felix Reyes was one of the people who witnessed Sean's spontaneous performance of "Hey Joe."

Reyes, an older Atlanta blues guitarist who fronted his own group, Felix and the Cats, immediately realized he was glimpsing a rare talent. He befriended Costello and his stepfather on the spot, and invited Sean to come sit in on a gig on New Year's Eve.

During his interview with A1 Artist Spotlight, Costello referred to Reyes as his mentor, a title Reyes hesitates to accept. "I tend to think of that as a misconception," the producer, engineer and musician says from his private studio in Chicago. But Reyes and Costello maintained a close relationship. They played together as recently as a few months ago in St. Louis, where, Reyes recalls, they "burned the house down."

"His energy was infectious and we always played above our abilities when he was around," he says.

Reyes' admiration and affection is palpable as he talks about Costello. "The blues is an oral tradition," Reyes says. "It's not something that you can really teach to someone. It's something that you learn from hanging out.

"I started hanging out with Sean when he was really young. Inevitably older people will have an influence on young folks. But I was blown away by the way he played. He was playing this neoclassical Van Halen kind of rock 'n' roll, and I thought, 'This kid has the technical facility, but we have to get him to slow down.' So I said so. Sometimes when you say something to people you don't realize how much they're affected by it. Very soon after I told him to slow it down, Sean was terrifying grown men when he was playing. I'm not going to name any names, but I distinctly remember being with one of the older and better players in Atlanta, and the first time he saw Sean playing his guitar he said, 'Jesus, this kid has to be stopped.'"

That sentiment resonated throughout Atlanta's blues community. In 1997, Creative Loafing's Greg Land reviewed Costello's debut CD, Call the Cops. Land wrote: "The razor lead-work, dead-on rhythm and polished writing spewing out of this 17-year-old Marietta blues rocker have older guitarists all over town tearing out their hair. Nice kid, too – it's really annoying."

When Costello was 15, his stepfather took him to Memphis in search of a Dobro resonator guitar. They stopped off at a vintage guitar store. One of the employees heard Costello tinkering around and pulled Smith aside to tell him he should take the kid over to a talent show that was under way at the now-defunct Blues Café.

It was the seventh week of a seven-week marathon. Costello was the 49th contestant. Without rehearsing or preparing for the gig, the kid from Atlanta stepped onto the stage with the house band and was given 10 minutes to play. To everyone's astonishment, he won and was given the New Talent Award by the Beale Street Blues Society, along with $100 in cash and 12 hours of studio time.

Back in Atlanta, Costello started playing more and more with Felix and the Cats, primarily at Northside Tavern and Fat Matt's Rib Shack. But it wasn't long before he put together his own band, Sean Costello and His Jive Bombers.

Though he wasn't old enough to be a customer at the Northside Tavern, the stage at the ramshackle club on Howell Mill Road became his launching pad. Northside's owner, Ellyn Webb, was willing to give Sean a shot when no one else would take him seriously, and he returned the loyalty: No matter how much national attention he received, he always went back to Northside.

To this day he holds the record for the tavern's highest attendance. According to Webb, the release party for Call the Cops in January of '97 packed in 498 people: "That's a heck of a lot for us, especially when you consider that our capacity is only 120!"

On another occasion, Costello returned from a few out-of-town dates to play at Northside. Heavy rains recently had flooded the club, and during his set, a portion of the roof collapsed. Nobody was injured. Sean and the rest of his band were so into the music that they didn't even notice what happened. It wasn't until the band was finished that they saw the damage.

"We are the only club in the world that can truthfully say that Sean Costello brought the roof down," Webb laughs.

As he honed his voice and his skills as a songwriter, Costello got better and better. Whereas early releases, Call the Cops and 2000's Cuttin' In demonstrated that he understood the blues, he tested the limits of the standard blues progression with 2001's Moanin' for Molasses. After spending time on the road playing guitar with modern blues songstress Susan Tedeschi, Costello was no longer simply emulating the greats; he'd begun to carve his own path.

By the time he released his self-titled fourth CD with New York's Artemis Records in 2004, he was weaving generous threads of soul, gospel and R&B into his approach. And just as his musical palette continued to expand, so did the response from fans and musicians.

The transition from torchbearer of the blues to innovator was witnessed firsthand by Kenny Kilgore, guitarist for Blind Willie's house band, the Shadows.

"I met Sean when he was probably 14," Kilgore says. "Someone brought him to a studio where I was working and said, 'Hey, check this kid out.' So I played him something and said, 'How would B.B. King play this?' He played something that was dead on. So I said, 'What would Albert King do with this?' And he did it again. I threw name after name at him and he did them all. It was amazing.

"The last time I saw him, I brought up that story and he remembered. But by then Sean was at the point to where he had developed an identifiable sound. You can be in another room and hear one of his songs playing and you can immediately say that's Sean Costello, and that's really hard to do with the blues. To get a sound that people can immediately identify as yours is really something special, and he had done that."

The Sean Costello CD emerged as a definitive artistic statement. His renditions of Tommy Johnson's "Big Road Blues" and Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate," coupled with his delivery of original numbers, such as "No Half Steppin,'" are raw and direct. Costello redefined the cover songs and sang them with enough passion to make them his own, while he let his true voice sing through the songs he'd written himself.

He did more than connect the dots. A range of storytelling and emotional outpouring materialized on the album. Costello channeled the honesty, melancholy, elation and punch-in-the-gut fortitude of songwriters who personified the music decades before he was even born. He seemed as if he might break out as a new and exciting face for the blues, just as Norah Jones was doing around the same time for jazz.

Then bad luck struck. Only 24 hours after the CD hit the street, label president Danny Goldberg retired. Artemis fell into chaos. The CD received virtually no publicity push. Within a few months, the label was out of business.

It was a devastating blow. By that time, Costello was the lauded and loved kid musician of Atlanta's blues scene, but his reach extended far beyond the city. He was as much a regular on stages in Memphis as he was in New York and even Paris. On stage, he was in his element, and in nearly every photograph he's smiling from ear to ear, or swimming in a moment of musical bliss.

But off stage he wasn't always so happy. He was shy and suffered through intense battles with depression and social anxiety, which he curbed with alcohol. He couldn't sleep. The problems became more apparent after Artemis failed. His still unrecognized condition was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder – an often-debilitating illness characterized by swings in mood and energy.

In the clubs, Costello kept his demons buried and showed only the gracious side of his personality. He shook everyone's hand, and went out of his way to ask if he did a good enough job. Did he sound OK? Had he screwed up that night? The performances were always dead on.

"Sean was very good at putting on a great face," says bass player Aaron Trubic. "Even up to the day he died, he told people that he was OK. His primary objective was to make sure that everybody around him was happy.

"He would get into funks, especially on the road," Trubic says. "He would get depressed for a couple of days at a time, as would everybody, but with him it was much worse, because it was a chemical thing. When you're performing music, you're in a situation where for four hours of the night you're on a pedestal. People love you and are screaming and dancing, and then when you play the last note everybody goes home. ... You ask yourself, 'What am I supposed to do now?' and this profound emptiness comes over you. 'Everybody loved me just a few minutes ago and now they're gone.' That's when you go have a drink, and one drink leads to another and another."

Shortly after The Sean Costello CD was released, Trubic became Costello's business partner.

"He had given me the band to run," Trubic says "He hated the business aspects of it all and didn't consider himself organized enough to handle it well. He wanted to be more involved with the musical aspects."

Trubic, who's still haunted by a falling-out with Costello that occurred earlier this year, says Costello finally went into a rehab program last year. He recalls it involving two days of detox and outpatient therapy.

"This business is so frantic and there is nothing constant about it," he says. "Things change from minute to minute. When suffering from bipolar you need stability, and when you're prescribed medication for that you really need to be steady with the schedule to make sure your equilibrium is in order. He knew it, and it bothered the living shit out of him because he wanted to conquer that and he wanted to have a wife and a family and a house. We used to try to put things in a realistic sense and we would say, 'OK, if we are as successful as we want to be with this business,' the first thing he would do is buy a house of his own where he could live and not be bothered by people and listen to records and write music."

Four years passed before Costello followed up the Sean Costello CD with We Can Get Together on Delta Groove Productions. With the new CD, Costello's emphasis on the art of songwriting returned with a vengeance. Nine of the 12 songs are original numbers that delve into the grooves of rock, R&B, funk and gospel while never losing sight of his blues roots. In his interview with A1, Costello talked about one original song, "Same Old Game."

"That song is about trying to reinvent myself," he said. "For the last record [Sean Costello], I was given a big advance and it was supposed to be my big break but everything went wrong, basically, and I had a hard time recovering from that. I went to a bigger agency and wasn't working as much I was used to working, and I was having a rough time recovering from everything. In that song, I'm talking about how I'm trying to come up with my own sound. If people don't like it, then so be it. Whereas before I was trying to be very respectful of the tradition and was sort of copying other people's music, that song is about having a new attitude and a new take on things."

We Can Get Together seemed like another chance at stardom. But less than two months after its release, Costello was dead.

Now another song on the album grips the listener with irony. His rendition of the traditional spiritual number "Going Home" creeps with a slow, humid pace that stirs up layers of Costello's sound. In the chorus he sings, "Soon I'll be done with the troubles of this world. I'm going home to live with God."

In the wake of his passing, his voice seems to take on a reverential tone. Pull up Costello's MySpace page and it's the first song that plays. With each new visit the song rings with lingering poignancy, and the reality of his untimely death is made all the more unsettling.

On May 3 – two weeks after his death – We Can Get Together entered the Billboard blues chart in the No. 10 position.

On the morning of April 15, the Cheshire Motor Inn's manager, Lorraine Williams, thought it strange Costello hadn't checked out yet. It was past 11 a.m.

The Cheshire Motor Inn sits on Cheshire Bridge Road, alongside a succession of strip clubs and lingerie shops. By day the quaint cottages and '50s-style exterior of the inn hardly match the neighborhood's bad rep. But inside the lobby, two deep, jagged dimples that scar the bulletproof glass protecting the concierge feel like a warning of the transformation that takes place after the sun goes down.

According to Williams, Costello was a regular, who checked in at least once a month. His staying there evokes the kind of romanticized tales of down-and-out bluesmen from decades ago, traversing the demons of the landscape and staying in cheap hotels while they made their way from gig to gig.

But Trubic says there's an explanation for Costello frequenting the inn. "That's where Blind Willie's used to put all of their out of town artists," he says. "... Sean liked the Cheshire Motor Inn because it was cheap and it was local."

At the time of his death, Sean also was between living spaces and spending time on the road. He often stayed with his parents in Marietta when he wasn't on tour, but had an appointment in town at 10 that Tuesday morning.

Says Williams: "Sean came in a lot and he didn't bother people. He would come in with his guitar and he was very cordial and personable and he would go off to his room. He would come in with his guitar and say 'I need to chill.'"

That morning, after repeated calls to his room, however, Williams tried the door, only to find it chained from the inside. She was able to stick her hand in far enough to brush the curtains aside, which was enough to see Sean's body lying face down in the bed.

"I called out his name and there was no movement and I said, 'Oh, that doesn't look good,'" Williams says.

"That's when I called 911. The fire department came to cut the chain and after that the police came, and the paramedics were there in no time. He was lying across the bed and he looked very calm. The room wasn't disturbed at all, and I saw no sign of drugs and nothing else like that. I was the first one in that room with the paramedics and the policeman, and I saw nothing like that whatsoever."

The police report calls Costello's death a natural death — as though he just lay down and died. A coroner's report from the Fulton County Medical Examiner is still incomplete, pending the toxicology results. (EDITOR'S NOTE: The autopsy was released on June 3, after Creative Loafing went to press. It attributed Costello’s death to a combination of heroin, ephedrine, amphetamine and Librium, a prescribed anti-anxiety medication. The report also cited recent cocaine use. For more on the report, click here.)

Regardless of the results, those who knew Costello well think it was at least indirectly tied to his bipolar condition.

"There are more questions than answers, but even if there were answers none of them are definitive," Trubic says. "They don't matter. He's dead. If you're talking about demons and depression they should be used to catalyze a discussion about how the music business fucks with you on a daily basis and is not conducive to a normal lifestyle, and if you have a chemical disorder it makes it 10 times harder."

Costello's legacy reads like any number of the songs he loved so much as a blues innovator. In death, he joins the ranks of the musicians and legends whose craft he helped to carry on. And as frustrating as it may be, the real cause of his death is still not known.

In his wake, the family has created a fund for bipolar research and awareness, particularly among musicians. But Costello's mother prefers to discuss how his condition may have affected his life and his art – rather than his death.

"Do I think that it affected his music? Absolutely," she says. "There was a passion and a level of understanding in his music that people way older than me wouldn't get. He knew things that other people didn't know and felt things that other people never felt."

The loss of her son and the unanswered questions provoke more sadness than frustration. "What killed Sean isn't what matters," she says. "What matters is that gone is gone, and my son is gone."

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