If there's one thing I bloody dog-fucking hate, it's pretty-boy-cracker-ass guitarists who look more like they should be appearing on Oz in lipstick and pigtails as Vern Schillinger's latest smegma receptacle than gigging at high-profile festivals and appearing in movies, posing as the Next Great Bloozeman.
And so I was all prepared to despise Sean Costello when I first encountered him. Ofay was so pretty he looked like he ought to be starring in Melrose Place, not treading on the sacred paths walked by Muddy Waters, J.B. Lenoir and Johnny Watson. Trouble was there was nothing to hate about Costello. This 20-year-old white kid from Atlanta played the beejeeziz out of the blues—not overplayed the beejeeziz out of them—and picked with confidence, style and taste that belied his tender years and countenance. More importantly, he sang with the same level of eln.
Whereas Jonny Lang belches out a tune like a little kid imitating Wilson Pickett in dire need of an enema, Costello croons with rare and true soul, never mimicking the black blues greats of yore but still managing to sound emotionally deep and authentic. And now that I've heard a couple of his albums and interviewed him, I like Seanny-boy even more. The first thing I needed to know was how did this greenhorn become so damned good at being Sean Costello?
"When I was younger, I went through a phase where I studied hard—everything from early country blues to Chicago '50s and '60s stuff," he says. "But then at some point, I just got tired of that and decided to stop trying to play like everyone else and let it happen by itself; not practice so damn hard and let it out onstage and see what I came up with. I just tried to be myself, and maybe I've succeeded at that through not practicing."
Wonderful! So Costello is lazy as well as talented—you gotta love that. But you still have to wonder how a kid of his tender years ends up sounding so seasoned and experienced. When Costello was a teenager, grunge and hip-hop were the omnipresent pop music forms of the day, but somehow he managed to bypass most of that information, emerging a purer talent for what his schoolmates must surely have viewed as latent dorkdom.
"I think I owned a copy of Nevermind when I was a kid, and I listened to some Guns 'N Roses when they were popular in the '80s," he shamefully admits. "If Run-DMC came on MTV, maybe I wouldn't turn the channel—but that's about as far as it went. I never really bought into that stuff. I just always liked the bluesier side of things."
Finally, I had to get to the beef—I just knew that a guy of Costello's legit gifts must be sick and tired of the Kenny Wayne Langs sucking up all the young blues-guy juice, so I asked for his most honest appraisal of the competition.
"I can't say I've bought any of their records," comments Costello. "I wouldn't say that they necessarily have anything at all to do with what I do, and I don't think they necessarily have anything much to do with blues, either. Kenny Wayne Shepherd is a decent guitar player, a sort of Stevie Ray Vaughan-patterned guitar player. Jonny Lang is a talented guy, and he was a nice kid when I sort of used to know him, but I think what he does is more rock or pop—I don't think it's really that heavily rooted in anything."
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And that was an extremely lengthy and polite way for Young Sean to sugarcoat the simple sentence, "Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd both suck poodle ass," and he is to be commended for his clever gift of euphemism. But the fact remains: Costello plies his trade in small blues clubs while the competition reaps assloads of dough playing for relatively huge audiences. Now 23, Costello admits that this can be frustrating, and a goal he has in mind is to somehow spread the word of the blues—the real blues—to a new generation.
"Unfortunately I don't have the opportunity to play in front of that many young people," he says. "I'm doing mostly blues clubs and festivals, which draw an older audience. I'd like to play for more young people, and I'd definitely like to help perpetuate the blues in the truest sense possible as long as I live. If I'm gonna play, I'm gonna play it like I know it's supposed to be played—it's a language and a tradition, and it's impossible for me to bastardize it."
God bless yer unbastardized ass, Sean. Now, everyone, give the kid a break and show up when he plays Friday night at the Blue Cafe in Long Beach; he is a most distinguished young man.
Sean Costello performs at the Blue Caf, 210 Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. fri., 10 p.m. $10. 21+.