Guitarist Costello finds, expands blues comfort zone
November 7, 2005
In 1998, guitarist Sean Costello quit Susan Tedeschi’s band. The decision, he said, was based more on his disenchantment with the music business than with music itself. But he also had issues with the music he was playing.”I was real serious about music, and about blues,” said Costello, who had played on Tedeschi’s breakthrough album, “Just Won’t Burn.” “There was so much music hyped up as blues and that had nothing to do with blues. It wasn’t comfortable.”Costello’s grumblings have the feel of a grizzled veteran’s, perhaps overprotective of the blues he had not only played, but lived. At the time, though, Costello was all of 19 – too young to consume alcohol legally, much less develop the long-term drinking habits that are part of the legend of the typical bluesman.
But Costello has always been serious about the blues. His 1997 debut CD was titled “Call the Cops,” a reference to the fictitious “blues police,” of which Costello counts himself a dedicated member. Such men in blue (men of blues?) crack down on the slicked-up, watered-down version of modern blues that is more about flash than feeling.”There’s a lot of stuff I can’t relate to,” said Costello, who makes his Aspen debut – and one of his first Colorado appearances – tonight at Aspen’s Belly Up. More stridently, Costello recently told the Arizona Daily Wildcat, “You see a lot of cheesy white bands doing cheesy stuff that’s in bad taste and not relevant to society in any way and just kind of boring and bad.”Raised near Philadelphia before moving, at 9, to the Atlanta area, where he still lives, Costello caught the blues bug early. At 9, he got a guitar and learned the blues-influenced rock of Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Two years later he bought the Howlin’ Wolf album that turned him on to the feeling behind the music, rather than the technique.”A whole new world. A lot more intense and satisfying,” he said of the older, more traditional blues. “It’s pure emotion, pure individual expression. It’s one person telling their story directly to the listener’s nerve center. There’s no phoniness. That’s the real blues, all real American roots music. It has nothing you see in the pop music.”
Costello has seemed to soften his stance somewhat, now that he has reached his mid-20s. His new album is titled “Sean Costello.” It is his fourth album, but the title reflects a bit more of an open mind. The Costello of “Sean Costello” tries on a crooner’s voice on “All I Can Do,” goes for uptempo soul on “I’m a Ram,” and shakes up Bob Dylan’s somber “Simple Twist of Fate.” (It is oddly similar, in its breadth, to “Hope and Desire,” the new album by none other than … Susan Tedeschi.) The roots are evident. But Costello’s purist vantage is broadened and updated.”It’s more my own songs. And they tend to be an amalgamation of different styles,” he said. “The previous ones were in an older genre. This is still blues and soul, but a more personal statement. That’s why I wanted to put my name on it, start fresh.”I still play blues every night. I know that music. Everything I play comes from that; that’s my comfort zone. But there are other genres out there. And I have to do something new. It’s time to take it somewhere else.”
So Costello may have to retire from the blues police. But he can still appoint himself a member of the roots cops, whose duty is to make sure that the music, whatever the style, has feeling and substance.”I do take it seriously,” he said. “It’s my life and passion.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org