Sean Costello was a Wailing Willow.  He started playing a professional Blues guitar at age 14 and by 2008 he was dead of an overdose on the eve of his 29th birthday.  On 10/10/10 in Atlanta, Georgia, there is a fundraiser — in Sean’s name — to help raise money for continued research into the depression and bipolarism that killed him.

Sean Costello’s music was risky, blunt and gravelly.  He sang like an 80-year-old man and played his beautiful, authentic, 1953 Gold Top Gibson Les Paul with classic P90 pickups like a child begging for approval while his life constantly teetered between danger and ecstasy.

Here’s the blurp from his website on Sean Costello’s ferocious, early, achievements:

Born in Philadelphia in 1979, Sean was a beautiful and precocious baby who walked, talked and read at an incredibly early age. His interest in music was evident as early as the age of 2, and after he moved to Atlanta at age 9, he began playing guitar. While his early influences were hard rock bands, he soon discovered the blues after picking up a Howlin’ Wolf tape in a bargain bin at a local record store. Sean never looked back. Soon local Atlanta bluesman Felix Reyes took Sean under his wing, and the rest is history. At age 14, Sean won the prestigious Memphis Blues Society’s New Talent Award. The prize included studio time during which he recorded his debut album, Call The Cops, which was acclaimed by Real Blues Magazine as “an explosive debut.” While in Memphis, Sean met fellow blues guitarist Susan Tedeschi with whom he later toured as lead guitarist, going on to record incredible lead guitar tracks on her gold album Just Won’t Burn.

Unfortunately, Sean’s bipolar depression was not fully treated or diagnosed until the end of his life was nigh.  His overdose was a classic indicator of a brilliant mind imprisoned by a pain he did not comprehend or abide.

Sean turned to self-medication with booze and pills to manage his depression, and that’s a noxious, steamy, mixture that numbs and condemns without ever really healing or treating the underlying cause of the pain:  An imbalance of chemicals in the brain.

Soon, the bipolar pull of the disease becomes so strong, and so unbearable, that the self-prescribed dosages and glassfuls mount and quarter into a misbegotten, tortured, death.

You may know The Blues, but you might not know much about Sean — probably because he died so young and he didn’t have time to create a breakout hit song of his own — but thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can hear the grit and see the unforgettable pain of the human condition poised in Sean’s performances.

In the first video, Sean covers an old Rod Stewart hit — “You Wear it Well” — and from the first, wailing notes, you know the guy is in total control of both his voice and guitar:

In the next song, Sean sings — “A Simple Twist of Fate” — a Bob Dylan classic that Sean makes entirely his own in every way and this cover is probably the one song most fans most closely associate with the ascension of his stellar career:

Finally, here is Sean covering — “It’s My Own Fault” — originally written by B.B. King and made famous by Johnny Winter — but you can see and hear who really owns this song in the playing and the performance:

Sheer blistering brilliance!

Sean made four albums across the arc of his short life.  Each album became more progressively mainstream and original while still honoring the soaking willow of his wet, Blues, roots.  A final compilation album was released after his death to help raise money for the research fund created in his name.




When we look back on the early and untimely deaths of so many incredibly talented musicians and artists — all who left us early because of undiagnosed depression and self-medication — we cannot help but know how unwittingly, but dangerously, they tried to live while balancing on a bleeding knife edge.

They fought against their manic gifts to find their niche in the average realm as they tried to negotiate the tremblings of their ornery days and insomniac nights — all castoff in a wish and a yearning to stay on balance and to not fall off the precipice and into the pitfall — when all they really wanted was to just keep touching the pinnacle.

We are all diminished in their return to memory — and yet we are also made greater by the sparks of life they left behind to light our murky way.

8 Comments

  1. Sad way to lose a wonderful talent, David. There has been so much social shame when it comes to depression. Those who don’t suffer think those who are sick are faking it. I, too, know lots of bipolar people and they aren’t faking anything. Not all of them are on medication yet, but it could help them all. Finding the right doctor is super important.

    1. I appreciate your comment and insight, Anne. We do have a Wild West mentality in the USA that you need to “suck it up and deal,” and if you have any sort of real or perceived “mental” problem, that too often offers you up as “unreliable and weak” — and society forces you to shut up about it and self-medicate. It’s a terrifying cycle of hiding and recovering while trying to repress the manic highs and manage the darkest lows.

    1. Steve —

      Sean is definitely worth your time. He’s a True Blues Original. Unlike many modern players, he wasn’t influenced by Stevie Ray Vaughn or Mike Bloomfield — he was his own True Voice with a very specific vision of what the Blues needed to become.

      It’s great you will put your muscle behind supporting the Sean Costello Fund!