At only 28, Atlanta blues guitarist and singer Sean Costello has already spent well over a decade in the public eye.
Picking up the guitar at the age of nine, by 14 he was already sneaking into clubs to sit in with established blues acts, and had won the Memphis Blues Society’s talent competition, which afforded him the chance to cut his debut LP, Call The Cops, and led to a featured role on Susan Tedeschi’s breakthrough Gold record Just Won’t Burn (he and his band would later tour as her backing group).
Since then, he’s played or recorded with an enviable number of blues, gospel and soul legends, such as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, the Five Blind Boys and The Band’s Levon Helm, and released four acclaimed —and increasingly eclectic— CDs under his own name that posit him as much more than a by-the-numbers revivalist.
His brand-new release, We Can Get Together, is a gritty powerhouse of steaming ‘70s-style R & B and hard-charging funk blues. After more than a half decade absence from local stages, Costello returns for a night of two can’t-miss shows with our very own internationally-known trio, The Eric Culberson Blues Band.
You started playing guitar at a very young age, and according to your bio, you knew right from the start that you wanted to be a blues musician. Do you feel lucky to have been able to discern exactly what you wanted to do as a career so early in life?
Sean Costello: Yeah. I guess now that I’m a little bit older, I realize that a lot of people my age —28— don’t know what they want to do.
I’m curious as to what sort of feedback you got from family and friends when you were first starting out — both positive and negative. I imagine a lot of folks must have thought this was a foolish idea to pursue.
Sean Costello: (Laughs) Yeah, I guess it is about the most bizarre thing you could pick for a career. Now that I’m a little bit older, I can see why it’s not the best way to make a buck. My parents were supportive as long as I kept my grades up. In a way, this was a big part of my identity as a kid. That’s in some way how I gained friends. My parents wanted me to go to college and get a degree, which I didn’t do.
Well, in a sense, you did go to school and get a degree. You just majored in music and oral history.
Sean Costello: That’s true! It’s very much an oral tradition that I’m involved in, that you have to watch and learn from a mentor.
Historically, so much of the blues genre has to do with a frontman carrying himself with a swagger and presence that might as well be called maturity and experience. Most of the classic blues icons from the past 50 years are remembered as wizened older statesmen, when in fact, some of their defining work was actually made when they were relatively young. What sort of internal pressures are put on a young cat who’s trying to be taken seriously in this field? Did you feel it was a given that you had to somehow conjure up the attitude and life experience of someone decades older than you just to either get into the mind-set of a singing blues guitarist and band leader? If so, has that gotten any easier now that you actually have amassed an impressive resume of your own?
Sean Costello: Oh, wow. That’s a big question! As I get a little older I feel I’m getting more comfortable with my own age and the fact that it’s the 21st century. When I was very young, I had to appear like was very old and play conservatively. I couldn’t overplay. I had to learn the old tunes note for note and there could be no loopholes at all in what I was doing. See, I couldn’t give anyone the opportunity to discount me. Being a young guy and a white guy, I already had a few things going against me in terms of credibility among some folks. I had to be sure to do my blues homework and behave in a certain way in order for people to take me more seriously.
Like you said before, Little Walter started recording when he was only 17! These guys were really young. This whole connotation of blues folks being old guys has only been in the past 30 years or so. R & B and soul and blues music was the popular music of the day. On the Robert Johnson recordings and the early Muddy Waters albums, those were young men shouting and bragging the way the hip-hop guys do now. It wasn’t an old man thing at all. When I started out, I was kinda shy, but I still wanted to maintain some kind of swagger on stage. I’m 28 now, and I think I’m finally getting more comfortable with myself and the way I act in front of an audience.
I know you’re a big Bob Dylan fan, as am I, and there’s obviously a correlation there in terms of a Jewish white guy from Minn. who essentially set out to become a revered bluesman, and in his own unique way did just that pretty much by the power of his will.
Sean Costello: Yeah, I sort of created my own path and I was so determined when I was younger. Something I understand about Dylan was that he started out really young and created all these stories and myths about himself. He was ruthless in being his own person. I was a little more reserved in that, but I do think I made my own way. I was so determined to do this and nothing else. I found ways to make this work. By the time I was out of high school I was making records and being a professional musician, and I’ve been able to make a career for myself somehow.
So you felt a real sense of urgency to make this your full-time job immediately?
Sean Costello: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was determined to be making a living by the time I graduated, so I wouldn’t have to go to college. I was kind of over high school by the time I was a senior. I was making just enough money to pull it off, and I’d played on that Susan Tedeschi record. Plus, it was the only thing I wanted to do. I wasn’t interested in sports or almost anything else. I wanted to be a blues musician and a guitar player. That rock and roll lifestyle was all I could see for myself. I wanted to be on my own. From a young age I had these dreams of being able to get by playing music and I was determined to make it happen one way or another.
You wrote virtually all the material on this latest album, which is something a lot of contemporary blues artists can’t or won’t do. In the past you’ve recorded a large amount of your own arrangements of other artists’ compositions. Do you see We Can Get Together as a declaration of sorts of your intent to create a lasting body of original work, or is that reading too much into the song selection, and the truth is you just happened to have a strong batch of songs piling up?
Sean Costello: Well, I’ve always been reluctant to record my own stuff. I only recorded my best songs. Especially in this line of work and this kind of music, there’s so much that’s totally underexposed, and most folks won’t know a lot of the songs I might choose to cover anyway. I could make as strong or a stronger statement with someone else’s material than my own. But on this album, I wanted to do a lot of originals. I mean, I’m not the young guy anymore. I gotta hit on all fronts! I gotta sing great, and play great, otherwise my music won’t be seen as that important. It’s hard to get attention paid to you anyway. You know, only something like two percent of all record sales are blues records! That’s a really small slice to try and make an impact in. It’s funny, but in a way, I actually feel younger now that I’m a bit older! I’m more comfortable with my age, and I kinda feel like no matter how old I get, it’s my job to act as a young person.
There’s a really heavy Southern soul vibe in both your vocals and the groove your band gets into on much of this album, as well as a few songs that dip into the church gospel vein. Can you see yourself moving more in those directions at the exclusion of straight blues, or should this be considered more of a stylistic diversion?
Sean Costello: I don’t know. I’m just going song by song at this point. These days, my show is half soul and half bluesey stuff, but they both blur together in my mind. I mean, rock and roll, blues and soul, I’ve taken it all in and I have enough of my own style now to make it sound like me. Maybe if I was much more successful or had a bigger band I might be tempted to pull off a more traditional soul thing, but it’s hard to do with just a trio which is what I tour with now. I’ve studied blues, gospel, rock and roll, all of it. I don’t feel the need to limit myself to one or the other.
So even though you have a lot of organ on this new record, you just travel with a bass player and a drummer?
Sean Costello: We’re just a trio, as that’s all I can afford to tour with now. For a while I had a guy that played harp and piano as well as another guy that played piano and organ. I had a good, big band, but I’ve had to drop down to a trio which I initially hated. I don’t like most guitar trios because it winds up being too over-the-top guitar solos all the time. However, I’ve worked hard to figure out ways to do it in a way that I enjoy. I think it’s made me a better player. It’s more direct and in your face, and there’s nothing for you to stand behind.
How healthy is the blues scene in America right now? Is it growing, stagnant or on the decline?
Sean Costello: Oh man, it’s been so slow. To be honest with you, it’s been really bad. Let’s put it this way: when I was 20 till I was about 23, I was making three times as much money personally as I make now. Right now, my best market is Western Europe. The blues is huge over there and it pays better. In Europe, I play some small clubs, but it’s mostly 300 to 500-seat halls. Here, I may play a few festivals, but mostly it’s small, smoky clubs. The whole industry is suffering. People don’t go out to see live music as much as they once did. They’ve got home entertainment systems, or they’re afraid of DUIs, or whatever. Plus, the whole recording industry has taken a hit and nobody knows what’s going on now. The entire music biz is completely different than when I started.
That’s odd, because I keep hearing about how the live concert business is growing, despite the industry woes. The logic is that you can’t copy or download the live show experience, and that’s why some labels are now insisting on taking a cut of an artist’s live revenue as well as their record sales.
Sean Costello: You know, I think maybe the live thing is spreading. The playing field is certainly more level now. Before, you had to be on a major label to get a lot of attention. I think being an indie artist is less of a disadvantage. As far as the blues scene goes, it has the tendency to wax and wane. It’s always been like that. But a lot of those clubs and festivals are shutting down. If you’re in a rock band just starting out, it’s a whole different world. You rarely get paid anything! I don’t get much money, but I do get paid.
See, I don’t just play blues, but that’s the overall umbrella and the scene where I can be most successful. I started out as a straight blues guy, and I still play some of that every night, but I wouldn’t say that’s exclusively what I do. The blues is infinitely huge, anyway! It will be apparent to people who see us that we know how to do justice to that style of music. We’ve studied it. But we mix things up. I’ll play traditional songs I learned from people that were taught them by someone else, just all sorts of American roots music.
It’s so interesting to me that over the past 15 years or so, the whole Americana genre has made it possible for artists to go out there and not be confined to just one style, which really used to be the case. You either played a blues show or a bluegrass show, or you were a singer/songwriter. Now, the public is infinitely more accepting of —and are even coming to expect— acts that show some real versatility. I can’t help but think that Dylan had a great deal to do with actually breaking down those walls and simply insisting that you could be a rock guy who also played gospel or blues or country or even swing jazz.
Sean Costello: Definitely. You know, I did some playing with Levon Helm for a while there, and he really blew it wide open for me. He’d play a Chuck Berry tune, then a blues, then a country tune or a rock number or whatever, and he didn’t even think twice about it. The Atlanta music scene has become a lot like that recently. I’ll go see a band and they’ll show that kind of range. It’s starting to sound more and more like the same family of tunes to me. It’s kinda cool that at some point the walls in my mind that separated all that just came down.
What’s the single biggest misconception folks have about blues guitarists?
Sean Costello: Oh man, let’s see... I don’t know. I think ever since Stevie Ray Vaughn came along people think that blues music is just endless soloing, but that’s really not what it was supposed to be about at all. If you listen to the old records, they were three-minute songs. There was a vocal, then an instrumental break and then a vocal and then out! This kind of overblown blues-rock thing has now become the norm, and that’s what people expect. I do some long guitar solos in my shows to fill up time and because I am good at that kind of thing, but I do plenty of songs that don’t require that at all. I guess at some point blues became this big guitar rock thing, which is not really what it ever was.
Have you ever considered branching out and either forming a band or recording an album of music that was completely unrelated to the blues, such as a straight-up rock or singer/songwriter project?
Sean Costello: Yeah, I did think about that. Especially lately, I’ve been considering putting a whole different band together on the side. I would keep my blues thing going and do my tours as they come in but have this whole other project with other folks in my spare time. Two or three years ago I actually made a full record that was kind of eclectic. I don’t know how to describe it. It was more of a rootsy rock album, but it was too eclectic. (Laughs) I couldn’t find a home for it. Now it’s just sitting there! I wound up taking some of the songs from that album and re-recording them for this new blues CD, which is much more cohesive and angled toward the blues roots thing. I had spent a lot of time in NYC and we were disappointed in how my self-titled record did, so my producer and I went in there and took a completely different approach. I suppose if my name gets a little bigger it might eventually come out, but otherwise I’m not sure.
When’s the last time you played Savannah?
Sean Costello: It’s been a long, long time. I did a festival down there about six or eight years ago, and I used to play that club Savannah Blues a lot, but it never paid enough. I mean, I just can’t justify my band and I coming down and doing that for $500 on a weekend, you know? So at some point when I was trying to break out regionally I played there a bit, but it got to the point where it simply wasn’t feasible for me to do it at that price in that town.
As a working musician myself, that’s something I’ve always been curious about. The blues circuit seems to operate differently in some respects from the country or rock circuits. It seems like they almost always pay solid guarantees and put the artists up somewhere decent.
Sean Costello: Yeah, that’s true. But the gig are longer. For an average rock band, you might be playing a 45-minute set or maybe two and you’re getting draft beer or a cut of the door. But on the blues circuit, we all ride around and play the same places around the country. There’s always a minimum guarantee and they put you up in a hotel, so you can actually get by doing that. It’s not as strong as it used to be, though. There’s a lot more driving between gigs and fewer weekday gigs, but it can be done.
Have you ever crossed paths with our own Eric Culberson Blues Band, who’ll be sharing the bill with you on this date?
Sean Costello: Oh yeah, man, of course! I played my first show down there with him. We were on some kind of a flatbed truck. My parents have a picture of he and I together on that truck, and I was really young and had a bowl cut. (Laughs) So, I’ve known him for a long time, but I haven’t actually seen him in something like five years. He’s a great singer and a great guitar player.
What can folks expect from your set at the SMF?
Sean Costello: We’ll mostly feature stuff from the album, but then I’ll throw in some classic blues and stuff from my older records. It’s a really high energy mixture of stuff. My bass player just left a couple of weeks ago, so I have a brand-new bass player. But it’s working out very well so far. This drummer has been with me for about a year, but he’d played with this bassist before, so even though this particular lineup hasn’t been together very long we have a large repertoire and can pull off a lot of stuff. The drummer who’s with me now is also the one who played on the new record.
What: Sean Costello with The Eric Culberson Blues Band
Where: Charles H. Morris Center
When: 6 pm, 8 pm, March 26
Cost: $15 at www.savannahmusicfestival.org or by calling 525-5050.