december 2011

Sean Costello: a new live album serves as a stirring reminder of how versatile a player and effective a singer he was

Sean Costello In Prime Time

By David McGee

Sean Costello
Landslide Records

If At His Best—Live is the last we hear of Sean Costello (no word yet on whether more live or studio sessions remain unreleased), then at the very least it gives us a stirring reminder of how versatile a player and effective a singer he was, and also of the hole blown into contemporary blues when he departed this mortal coil in April 2008, one day short of his 29th birthday. With the blues in a resurgent mode the past few years, Costello seemed perfectly positioned to become a youthful elder statesman in the field, a beacon of style and substance to an impressive younger generation of blues artists bringing to the party diverse influences and a similar commitment to integrity in the playing and performance of this music. Instead, he's gone even sooner than the man who should have been the youthful elder statesman, Stevie Ray Vaughan, who died less than two months shy of his 36th birthday. This live monument to an artist still growing is assembled from a variety of performances around the globe between 2000 and 2007. Nothing too unusual about that, except that some of the 17 cuts are studio-quality soundboard recordings, whereas others have been donated by Costello enthusiasts who taped his shows from their perches in the venues. No spotty audio here, though: the estimable producer/engineer Rodney Mills has done a superb job of polishing the homemade recordings without losing their raw edge—Costello sounds like he’s snarling from inside a cave on “The Battle Is Over But The War Goes On,” but all the air around his vocal, when coupled to the absolutely ferocious, biting guitar solo he executes, results in a you-are-there steamroller effect a soundboard or studio cut might have lacked.

The “set” is sequenced to replicate the flow and dynamics of a typical Costello show. Which means a satisfying number of straight-ahead, no-frills blues are supplemented by several of his welcome forays into southern soul.

At the Crossroads Café in Antwerp, November 25, 2007, Sean Costello (with Aaron Tubic on bass and Paul Campanella on drums) performs ‘The Hucklebuck.’ A 2002 version of this tune is featured on At His Best--Live.

As per the former, he kicks off the proceedings with a boisterous romp through Freddie King’s “San-Ho-Zay,” featuring perky single-string runs, atmospheric double-stops and rapid-fire salvos combining cascading flurries, pizzicato punctuations and upper neck, single-string howls. Lloyd Glenn’s “Blue Shadows,” the first of the audience tapings on the disc, illustrates Costello’s intense way with a wrenching ballad—he didn’t have the most colorful voice, but had deep repositories of feeling to draw on. That’s what counts in numbers like these, when the singer brings as much heartache vocally as he does in his wailing instrumental flights. He dives even deeper into Lowell Fulson’s classic “Reconsider Baby,” delivering it as a laconic shuffle, spitting out his pleading vocal—signifying his anger as much as his heartbreak over being dumped—and cutting out on an aggrieved, pointed solo as Paul Linden enhances the mood with ruminative piano soloing.

Sean Costello at The Living Room, NYC, performs ‘You Wear It Well.’ Video by and posted at YouTube by anthonypepitoneVideo. (This performance is not included on At His Best--Live.)

As a soul singer Costello comes from the rough-hewn school of vocalists, with a gritty delivery and a conversational drawl. So Tyrone Davis’s “Can I Change My Mind” is less a plea than a rhetorical question, a bit tougher minded than the great original; Bobby Womack’s “Check It Out,” driven by an anxious, scratchy guitar solo, is funky and playful, with a certain engaging urgency in Costello’s upper register whoops and cries (he sounds a bit like the young Joe Cocker here); buttressed by Matt Wauchope’s churchy organ, Costello mounts the pulpit for some testifying on Johnnie Taylor’s “Doing My Thing,” justifying his position with swaggering authority as the band stomps ahead with mounting intensity until Costello is so consumed in the moment he’s out of words and gives way to his searing, protesting guitar for a final commentary.

Elsewhere, check out a terrific, sprinting workout on “The Hucklebuck”—yes, that hucklebuck—featuring both Costello and Wauchope in joyous, frisky soloing; a potent, grinding version of Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “Motor Head Baby” (which sounds remarkably like Elvis Presley’s latter-day arrangement of “Lawdy Miss Clawdy”) fueled by an astonishing, deeply blue guitar solo; and, closing the show, an audience tape of a fiery performance of Little Richard’s “Lucille” with a howling, shouting vocal Mr. Penniman would appreciate, plus successive, blazing hot solos by Wauchope (organ), Linden (piano) and Costello launching the bouncy track onto a higher, exalted plane. Sean Costello was something special, and this disc captures much of what made him so. If there’s more, bring it on. Note: Royalties from the sale of this CD will benefit the Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bi-Polar Research.

Sean Costello’s At His Best—Live is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024