Monday, January 9, 2012

At His Best – Live reviewed by Mark Thompson

At His Best – Live
Sean Costello
Landslide Records
17 tracks/71:36

At the time of his tragic death just before his 29th birthday, Sean Costello was touring in support of his new recording. That Delta Groove release, We Can Get Together, confirmed that Costello had finally developed vocal skills equal to his undeniable ability as a guitarist. Coupled with powerful new material, all the pieces were in place for Costello to grab a bigger share of the spotlight. Now all we can do is savor the second compilation from Landslide Records that reminds us of what a loss we suffered three and a half years ago.

The tracks on this disc stretch over a seven year period, documenting Costello's growth as an artist. The earliest cut is from a June, 2000 show at Upfront & Company in Marquette, MI. Costello tears through an energetic version of “San-Ho-Zay”, showing that he was always a compelling guitarist. Costello returns to the same venue ten months later for a spirited rendition of “Reconsider Baby”. Two performances from Buddy Guy's Legends in 2002 expose some of Costello's vocal limitations at the time but his fiery string-bending make “Blue Shadows” and Magic Sam's “All Your Love” worth a listen. When you compare these cuts with “Check It Out” from France late in 2007, one quickly hears the maturation in Costello's singing. His approach is more confident, his voice more flexible and able to generate an emotional response, which you can clearly hear from the audience reaction at the conclusion of the track.

Other highlights include three tunes from what was obviously a killer evening at the Double Door in Charlotte, NC. Costello covers his soul influences on “Can I Change My Mind” before digging deep into Johnny Taylor's “Doing My Own Thing”, his vocal steadily building in intensity until he switches over to guitar for a rousing conclusion. Next is a stirring run-through on the instrumental “The Hucklebuck” with Matt Wauchope on organ sharing solo honors with the leader. An unknown venue in Richmond, VA was the scene of a blistering guitar work-out on “Motor Head Baby” while a  2007 show in Tallahassee, FL produced a dark rendition of “The Battle is Over But the War Goes On”. An uncredited date from Boston is probably from the later part of Costello's career. The sizzling performance of Robert Ward's “Peace of Mind” features Costello's tough vocal over Melvin Zachary's throbbing bass line.

Part of Costello's success was due to the fine musicians who backed him night after night on stage. In addition to those mentioned, band members included Paul Linden on harp, piano and organ, Aaron Trubic on bass plus Terence Prather and Roy Hangen on drums. Sound quality varies a great deal between the various shows. Some of the dates have a muddy sound with limited range but everything is listenable.

If you need any more encouragement to check this one out, you should know that part of the proceeds from sales of this release will benefit the Sean Costello Memorial Fund for Bi-Polar Research. What a great way to honor Costello's legacy and get yourself over an hour's worth of his knock-out live performances!

Reviewed by Mark Thompson

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