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"The last time I saw him, I brought up that story and he remembered. But by then Sean was at the point to where he had developed an identifiable sound. You can be in another room and hear one of his songs playing and you can immediately say that's Sean Costello, and that's really hard to do with the blues. To get a sound that people can immediately identify as yours is really something special, and he had done that."
The Sean Costello CD emerged as a definitive artistic statement. His renditions of Tommy Johnson's "Big Road Blues" and Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate," coupled with his delivery of original numbers, such as "No Half Steppin,'" are raw and direct. Costello redefined the cover songs and sang them with enough passion to make them his own, while he let his true voice sing through the songs he'd written himself.
He did more than connect the dots. A range of storytelling and emotional outpouring materialized on the album. Costello channeled the honesty, melancholy, elation and punch-in-the-gut fortitude of songwriters who personified the music decades before he was even born. He seemed as if he might break out as a new and exciting face for the blues, just as Norah Jones was doing around the same time for jazz.
Then bad luck struck. Only 24 hours after the CD hit the street, label president Danny Goldberg retired. Artemis fell into chaos. The CD received virtually no publicity push. Within a few months, the label was out of business.
It was a devastating blow. By that time, Costello was the lauded and loved kid musician of Atlanta's blues scene, but his reach extended far beyond the city. He was as much a regular on stages in Memphis as he was in New York and even Paris. On stage, he was in his element, and in nearly every photograph he's smiling from ear to ear, or swimming in a moment of musical bliss.
But off stage he wasn't always so happy. He was shy and suffered through intense battles with depression and social anxiety, which he curbed with alcohol. He couldn't sleep. The problems became more apparent after Artemis failed. His still unrecognized condition was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder – an often-debilitating illness characterized by swings in mood and energy.
In the clubs, Costello kept his demons buried and showed only the gracious side of his personality. He shook everyone's hand, and went out of his way to ask if he did a good enough job. Did he sound OK? Had he screwed up that night? The performances were always dead on.
"Sean was very good at putting on a great face," says bass player Aaron Trubic. "Even up to the day he died, he told people that he was OK. His primary objective was to make sure that everybody around him was happy.
"He would get into funks, especially on the road," Trubic says. "He would get depressed for a couple of days at a time, as would everybody, but with him it was much worse, because it was a chemical thing. When you're performing music, you're in a situation where for four hours of the night you're on a pedestal. People love you and are screaming and dancing, and then when you play the last note everybody goes home. ... You ask yourself, 'What am I supposed to do now?' and this profound emptiness comes over you. 'Everybody loved me just a few minutes ago and now they're gone.' That's when you go have a drink, and one drink leads to another and another."
Shortly after The Sean Costello CD was released, Trubic became Costello's business partner.
"He had given me the band to run," Trubic says "He hated the business aspects of it all and didn't consider himself organized enough to handle it well. He wanted to be more involved with the musical aspects."
Trubic, who's still haunted by a falling-out with Costello that occurred earlier this year, says Costello finally went into a rehab program last year. He recalls it involving two days of detox and outpatient therapy.
"This business is so frantic and there is nothing constant about it," he says. "Things change from minute to minute. When suffering from bipolar you need stability, and when you're prescribed medication for that you really need to be steady with the schedule to make sure your equilibrium is in order. He knew it, and it bothered the living shit out of him because he wanted to conquer that and he wanted to have a wife and a family and a house. We used to try to put things in a realistic sense and we would say, 'OK, if we are as successful as we want to be with this business,' the first thing he would do is buy a house of his own where he could live and not be bothered by people and listen to records and write music."
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