Few styles of music are as alternately ethereal and awful as the blues. It's a genre rife with bastardization, and while everyone can agree that it's a quintessentially American expression and probably worthy of respect and renaissance, too many see it as a platform for electrified wanking.
Because my own taste in blues runs to grizzled, black nonagenarians with acoustic guitars, it's easy for me to discount any fresh-faced white boy hailed as The Next Big Thing. There's a subculture that too readily lionizes bar-rock masquerading as roots music these days, and I don't want anything to do with claims-adjuster 1-4-5 riffs passing as traditional blues.
The surprising thing is that Sean Costello doesn't, either, and he's grown up as a star of the genre. A winner of a Beale Street Blues Society talent contest at age 14, he made his first album at age 17, toured and recorded with blues star Susan Tedeschi at 20, and now, at 25, is touring on his fourth album.
"I was always a traditionalist," Costello told me. "A lot of people play blues as more of a rock- or lick-driven style. I always did a 1940s, or '50s, or '60s style, and was always strictly into the tradition."
Costello's biggest star qualities are his attitude, his obvious passion for songwriting and his remarkably mature grasp of blues as a form for expression.
"For the genre, it's an understanding of the music and how it works. Some young people, and some old people, for that matter, start to get into blues, and they do it while ignoring the grace of the language, just blowing out licks. Maturity is being concise and not self-indulgent, playing things that work in service of the song rather than in service of your ego."
This kind of talk has forced the label of "blues police" onto Costello, a tag with which he's not particularly comfortable. While he's been an outspoken traditionalist, he now gamely incorporates a wide range of influences and styles.
"There was a time when I was more of a purist, which is the same with a lot of people who like the old music. Some of the blues police will say, 'Oh, you're not playing that right,' or, 'You're going about this the wrong way.' Like any kind of roots music, like with folk music or jazz as much as blues, there are people that are concerned with the tradition of it," he says. "But I'm at a point where I'm concerned with other things."
Costello's "other things" include a seeming voracity for various roots styles. His newest, eponymous disc is a gleeful and learned smorgasbord of Chicago blues, riverboat tunes, Delta muck, Motown soul and everything in between.
Though it features songs by Al Green, Johnny Taylor and Bob Dylan, the album's strongest compositions are Costello's own. From the smoky piano-bar ambiance of the ballad "All I Can Do" to the horn-driven swagger and stomp of "No Half Steppin'," Costello deftly manages each stylistic variation.
His writing, as good as it is, isn't second to his performance. With a voice more Jeff Buckley than Blues Hammer, Costello sounds far older than his years, and uses his guitar with such smart and stylish restraint that it's hard not to be charmed.
In the midst of a months-long nationwide tour, Costello is doing things the old-school way: with a van, a band and a string of shows.
"This is the only way I've ever done it," he says. "I never have had a tour bus or a plane, and that's the same for a lot of bands that don't have massive support from their labels for touring. We do what we have to do."
-- Aaron Retka
Sean Costello with special guest Halden Wofford and the Hi-Beams
Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theatre, 3955 Cragwood Drive
Saturday, Nov. 12, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20, with available V.I.P. upgrade; call 262-3232 or log onto uccstheatreworks.com.