I just got really sad when I read that Costello Sandwiches in Lincoln Square is going to be closing its doors on Sunday. That place kinda changed my life, so I figured I’d share that whole story because it’s never lost on me how fantastic it is that I get to pay my bills by playing music. This sandwich joint basically gave me what I needed to make it happen.
I remember before they opened, I’d camp out on the sidewalk with a napkin tucked in my collar and a fork and knife in my hand. Gimme! And one day in 2006, after I’d been eating there for a few years, I walked by and saw a chair and a microphone in the window that hadn’t been there before. At this time I still had a day job, but did gigs on the side. I asked if they were hiring musicians and they said I could come in Saturday and play for 2 hours, and if I was bad they’d ask me to stop. So I did. It was my second gig ever performing solo acoustic, and I played every song I knew – not necessarily crowd-pleasers, mind you. All the TMBG and TV theme songs I could remember…well, I got across the finish line just barely, and they said I could come back next Saturday. And then I played there every Saturday, and eventually a few other days a week, for six years.
That first year playing in Lincoln Square was what forced me to learn hundreds of songs. I remember trying to bring in 3-5 new songs every week for as long as I could, just to build up my book. Those of you that have seen my book of covers, well…you probably roll your eyes that I don’t have it in an iPad. The book is large and unwieldy. But I built it up playing at Costello. It’s still growing at an alarming pace (Old Town School helps with that, these days) and I still use it – including a huge number of sheets made for the Costello gigs.
I sang terribly. For a while. But I really got my 10,000 hours – or something close to it – at Costello on that little stage, sitting in that chair. For a few years I was playing there for 2-3 hours, four days a week. I kind of learned how to sing while sitting in that chair. I’m still self conscious about my voice, but I know I’ve learned how to sing a thing or two. Those families I played for week after week were kinda my guinea pigs for coming up with the sets of crowdpleasers I play now. I experimented with a bunch of stuff there, and they were nice enough to keep having me back and treat me well. There are tons of memories and stories from those days, watching the neighborhood grow up and families do their weekend thing. I remember a kid about 5 years old who came up to me after I finished a Paul Simon song, and said, “Hey, my mom loves that song. I gotta tell her I met the guy who sings it,” and I was like, “No, kid…….eh.” One time someone tipped me a Conway Twitty CD. One time I got a tip and looked up and it was Julia Stiles. One time Lisa Madigan told me, “Boy, you’re just fearless up there,” which was true, but I’m not sure it was a compliment. That made me think, and has really stayed with me. Lisa Madigan, that was one of the more influential comments I’ve ever gotten.
Now I sing at bars and at that other sandwich place all the time. I knock out 3-hour shows with or without a setlist, kind of in my sleep. It’s something that lets me make a living playing guitar and singing, and I’m so grateful that I can do that. I was able to get (no joke) a few hundred “gigs,” playing for moms and toddlers mostly, under my belt — and that may be the most valuable thing a musician can get in the early days.
I gotta thank Chris Costello for giving me a shot and for being a great boss. Rob and Glenn too. I have a career in music because of that place. Cheers, Costello Sandwiches and Sides.