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Sean Costello, 1979-2008

The tragic death of an Atlanta bluesman



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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.

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