It doesn’t matter who let these Dogs out, so long as they keep barking.
The three musicians in The Winery Dogs are hailed as virtuosos on their respective instruments. Each boasts a high-mileage resume logging membership with other well-known bands and stints backing equally-talented solo artists, and you’d be correct in guessing their eponymous first collaboration would find them firing on all cylinders when placed in a room together.
Singer / guitarist Richie Kotzen signed to Mike Varney’s Shrapnel Records while still a teen. He pinch-hit for Poison’s C.C. Deville in the ‘90s, released a slew of solo albums, and joined Mr. Big in the 2000’s. Monster drummer Mike Portnoy founded progressive-metal band Dream Theater in the late ‘80s and has fraternized in countless side projects since, conjuring his percussive thunder for some of metal’s most respected guitar and keyboard wizards. Bassist Billy Sheehan made a name for himself in Talas before pinning the low end in David Lee Roth’s inaugural solo band, then formed Mr. Big between albums and shows with Steve Vai, Tony MacAlpine, Niacin, and Bx3 (with Jeff Berlin and Stu Hamm).
Aligning a guitar god with a bass legend and drum deity doesn’t necessarily beget quality music, but the alchemy in Winery Dogs sounds natural and organic on record. Sheehan and Kotzen already share a bond from Mr. Big; Portnoy was the final angle in a titanic new tripartite. So yeah, there’s ample interplay and fancy fret-work on display here—but unlike many all-star “shred” acts The Winery Dogs emphasize songs over showing off, constructing thirteen burning blues vignettes with their prodigious chops before splashing on a couple coats of “wow.” The result is a solid debut by a trio of consummate musical athletes, and one of the year’s best hard rock releases.
Vocally, Kotzen is such a dead-ringer for Chris Cornell that The Winery Dogs could rightly be called the best Soundgarden album Soundgarden never made. Whether by design or subconscious, Richie’s soulful wails, plaintive appeals, and raging high notes pay homage to the “Black Hole Sun” singer while imbuing the Dogs’ own words with identity and passion. But a majority of material here also holds kinship with down ‘n’ dirty hits by Sanford-Townsend Band, Grand Funk Railroad, and Lenny Kravitz. Kotzen’s pipes alone are astonishing; throw in his considerable six-string histrionics, and you’ve got a double-threat front man.
We’re not familiar enough with Kotzen’s personal past to discern whether his odes to addiction and recovery are experience-based. Regardless, he convinces with “I’m No Angel,” “Not Hopeless,” “You Saved Me,” and “The Dying,” converting stories of defeat into epiphanies and stories of salvation with his powerful, smoky rasp. Elsewhere, Richie focuses on love and relationships, waxing on ruined romance (“Damaged,” “Desire”) and missed opportunities (“Regret”) with churchgoer conviction.
The disc ignites with “Elevate,” a burning confessional whose downtrodden protagonist feels a shadow of his former self and begs his better half for a pick-me-up. “I don’t want to be wasted,” pleads Kotzen’s antihero over Portnoy’s kinetic percussion. Two minutes in, and the Skynyrd-flavored barbeque blues yields to Kotzen’s fleet-fingered guitar solo and Sheehan’s muscular bass funk. The propulsive, radio-friendly “We Are One” surges toward a catchy refrain celebrating solidarity in both life and love, Richie’s chicken pickin’ leads, wah-wah guitar solo, and chiming harmonics splashing the mix with color.
“Stand up and fight the power!” encourages Kotzen, channeling Stevie Salas.
Watch the video for “Elevate” here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnMBix9Zq5o
Sheehan’s warbling bass weaves between and beneath Portnoy’s Tama attack on “The Other Side,” whereon Kotzen exorcises demons by modeling guitar leads on his own vocal inflections during the verses. “I’m at the great divide…in the deep…on the edge and falling,” he laments, his crackling guitar a cipher for catharsis and healing. Richie ponders a tumultuous past and sober future on “Not Hopeless,” the ferocity of his piercing vocal matched only by a guitar-bass duel (at the 2:25 mark) that’ll have gear-heads staring at their speakers in disbelief.
Clean arpeggios, adroit hammer-ons, and tapping decorate subdued power ballad “You Saved Me,” the intensity of Portnoy’s thumping kick-drum increasing as Kotzen’s guitar scorches along. “It kicks you when you’re down and shows no mercy,” bemoans down-but-determined narrator. “When sunshine turns to grey, somehow I know I will survive.” Later, Portnoy plays around the beats on his silver sparkle kit while Sheehan cements the groove with his rumbling Yamaha riffs. The similarly-themed “Six Feet Deeper” catches Kotzen’s societal castoff “down in a gutter with a 40 oz. in a bag”—but this time the lyric is a metaphor for being dumped. Raucous rhythms back Richie’s “oh no” falsetto and searing guitar attack, paving the path to a mischievous midsection (at 1:40) replete with abrupt stop-starts and more fleet-fingered excursions up and down the frets by Kotzen and Sheehan.
Billy’s snaking bas line bolsters Portnoy’s restrained stick work on the epic “Time Machine,” whose dense vocal hook condemns self-medication in the face of despair. Borrowed from Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” playbook, the massive, undulating foot-stomper quickens at 3:30, with Kotzen letting loose with his trademark legato and sweep-picking while Portnoy doubles the tempo. “The Dying” summons the spirit of Jimi Hendrix for a jazzy (if mournful) “don’t care anymore” manifesto whose extended outro guitar solo underscores Richie’s feigned recalcitrance. Piano and organ grace the album-capping, stock-taking “Regret,” whereon Kotzen’s disenchanted lover wonders how long he’ll have to “play the game” and repeat his mistakes before something changes.
The Winery Dogs is a winning (and hopefully not one-off) excursion by an intimate enclave of acrobatic all-stars who know the difference between self-indulgent wanking and servicing actual songs with controlled finesse. By hanging their formidable string-and-drum skills on these booze-soaked, heart-on-sleeve songs rather than shred in a vacuum, the Dogs concoct delicious hard rock ear candy whose deftly-delineated measures afford them an actual context for the jaw-dropping acrobatics fans have come to expect. Imagine a hypothetical band championed by a top-notch singer / dream guitarist (cobbled together—Frankenstein fashion—from bits of Eric Johnson, Allan Holdsworth, and Eddie Van Halen) backed by a flashier incarnation of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble, and you get the idea. These boys may have mothballed their spandex, but their brand of rock still makes for quite the workout.
The Winery Dogs play the Cleveland Agora on November 2, 2013. Tickets are available now. Visit their website for additional dates.