Bluesman Sean Costello: Old School At Age 20

Guitarist on Susan Tedeschi's Just Won't Burn is out with a new solo album.

Some of today's young blues-guitar hotshots, notably Jonny Lang and Shannon Curfman, often come off as graduates of the note-streaming school of playing epitomized by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Sean Costello, however, is no such flash-and-burn artist.

Costello, who turns 21 on April 16, is old school. On his new album, Cuttin' In, his debut for Landslide Records, the Atlanta guitarist and singer pays homage to blues masters of the past.

He also shows fire and finesse while refusing to hog the spotlight, allowing harmonica player Paul Linden equal time.

"It's kind of an ensemble record," said Costello, who appeared over the weekend on the House of Blues Radio Hour. "I got into a place where I want to play less guitar. I want to concentrate on just having songs and arrangements. It's more interesting to me. I've played plenty of guitar. I think I've played enough guitar to last a lifetime.

"I wanted to have even less guitar than there is on the album," Costello added. "But the record company insisted that I stretch a few things out. I was like, 'Oh, OK.' "

Costello Seeks Out His Influences' Influences

Costello, who received his first guitar for his ninth birthday, was a quick and inquisitive study.

"When I first got a guitar, I was into people like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, kind of classic-rock stuff. And then I would read about who they listened to, and I decided to hear some of these blues artists," said Costello, whose first blues purchase was a Howlin' Wolf LP featuring guitarist Hubert Sumlin.

"I try to do my homework," he said. "I've been studying the blues stuff for quite a few years. That's always been my goal: I've always loved listening to the older stuff, so that's what I try to re-create, keep alive."

On Cuttin' In, Costello turns to the likes of Johnny "Guitar" Watson — "Cuttin' In" (RealAudio excerpt) is a cover of a Watson song — and the original Sonny Boy Williamson, as well as to jazz greats Charlie Christian and Tiny Grimes. He also gives a nod to Blind Blake — the Calypso singer, not the bluesman — whose "Goombay Rock" (RealAudio excerpt) Costello also covers.

Right Place At The Right Time

Costello's professional break, at age 14, "was just kind of a fluke. I was on vacation with my father in Memphis. I guess I wanted to jam on Beale Street, or he wanted me to jam on Beale Street."

Finding a jam session canceled on account of the 1994 Blues Talent Contest, Costello entered, just for a chance to play on Beale Street.

"I ended up winning, and I had to come back. I won the finals, and I wound up representing Memphis in the International Blues Competition."

Representing "the blues town" in international competition was a heady experience, even if Costello finished only "fourth or fifth. I wasn't in the top three but ... whatever. It's a blues competition. They shouldn't have a blues competition."

Right Place At The Right Time, Part II

More significantly, Costello met fellow guitarist Susan Tedeschi, recently a Grammy nominee for Best New Artist, at the competition. The two would later partner up after the 1997 Springing the Blues Festival in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. They were introduced by guitarist Adrienne Hayes, whom Costello soon replaced in Tedeschi's backing band.

When the Boston-based Tedeschi went into the studio to record Just Won't Burn (Tone Cool), the 1998 album that put her on the map, she took Costello and his band along with her.

Costello contributed to such radio-popular tracks as "Rock Me Right" and "You Need to Be With Me."

Costello and his band also backed Tedeschi on subsequent tour dates.

"I mainly learned a lot about myself and about the music business from touring and being in that situation," said Costello, who had just graduated from high school at the time. "I can't say that I learned a hell of a lot as a musician, other than how to be practical on the road — what not to do."

Costello learned more musically, he said, "from listening to the old records, and I really spend quite a bit of time studying different people's styles. Also, I've been hanging around older blues musicians since I was quite young. That's pretty much the only way you can learn, having older guys yell at you."

Costello gained invaluable advice from Atlanta bluesman Felix Reyes, who patiently lectured him on the "less is more" philosophy, as well as from harpist James Cotton. "I've always been fascinated with backing up harmonica players," Costello said.

"And I backed up Bo Diddley," he added. "And he actually yelled at me."