Like vineyard pooches patrolling for grape-plundering vermin, The Winery Dogs safeguarded Cleveland from mediocre rock and roll Saturday night with an electrifying show at The Agora Ballroom.
The Brooklyn-based trio might be called a “supergroup,” given its all-star lineup of veteran virtuosos. But guitarist Richie Kotzen (Mr. Big, Poison), bassist Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, Niacin, David Lee Roth) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment) demonstrated that the focus of their new band is songs, not shredding. Easily one of the year’s strongest hard rock records, The Winery Dogs’ eponymous debut for Loud and Proud Records is full of songs more memorable for muscular hooks and catchy choruses than speed-demon guitar solos and self-indulgent wanking.
But that’s not to say the disc—or the band’s November 2nd set—lacked the instrumental chops that made these guys famous. On the contrary, songs like “Elevate Me,” “We Are One,” and “Time Machine” feature plenty of solo spots whereon each musician displays his athletic prowess, plus a few magic moments of acrobatic interplay between two—or all three—members. Think Grand Funk Railroad and The James Gang meet Rush: Nail down the rhythms, tighten the chord progressions, belt some passionate vocals about heartache and redemption, and just maybe there’ll be room for a little over-the-top improvisation and proto-metal hysteria.
Consider Kotzen and Sheehan, a pair of fret board fiends who eschew picks in favor of pulling and tapping their strings with fingertips. Channeling his gorgeous brown Telecaster through a couple Fender Vibro-King amplifiers, Kotzen exploited a wide spectrum of guitar tones—from the twangy rockabilly of the 1950’s to the blistering, breakneck overdrive of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Resembling a cross between CSI actor William Petersen and Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin in their younger days, the clean-cut front man handled lead vocals between ripping riffs and lightning-fast licks, his soulful delivery augmenting his GQ good looks. Kotzen didn’t smile much, seemingly lost in the performance, so when he did break into a grin you knew he’d either tapped into the sheer joy of what he was doing, or perhaps picked up on an authentic, amusing (and probably unscripted) gesture by his cohorts.
Clad in black with his blonde hair secured in a ponytail, the tall Sheehan is still a monster player. Gone are the spandex pants and kneepads, but the Buffalo native’s pink sweatbands, quick moves, and overall mischievous demeanor betrayed his colorful years backing Roth. Powered by Hartke heads and cabinets, Sheehan’s light blue Fender Attitude bass boasted a wireless transmitter that afforded its owner maximum mobility as well as unbelievably deep resonance. His pipes liberally lubed with an occasional swig of Heineken, he thickened the mix with background vocals on “Six Feet Deeper,” “You Saved Me,” “Not Hopeless,” and just about every other tune.
Throttling a much smaller Tama drum kit than he’s accustomed to, the bearded and bandana’d Portnoy was the Dogs’ indefatigable beat machine, a percussive engine capable of accelerating and exploding (“Other Side,” “Damaged”) as well as downshifting and delineating the meters with restraint (“I’m No Angel,” “Regret”). The Transatlantic timekeeper also contributed vocals, courtesy an overhead microphone that swung into place with a little help from a technician crouching behind Portnoy’s throne. The drummer played funnyman to Kotzen’s straight-laced bandleader, banging his head with a fist, making goofy faces, and twirling sticks in his fingers, sometimes even tossing them offstage to a roadie—who’d fling them right back.
Both Portnoy and Sheehan took extended solos, dropping jaws with their drum and bass agility. Kotzen forwent the usual guitar solo by strapping on a Taylor acoustic and dusting off “Doin’ What the Devil Says to Do,” from his own 2006 album Into the Black.
The encore featured a couple nice surprises: The Dogs’s cover of 1975 Elvin Bishop hit “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” showcased the threesome’s vocal harmonies and again evinced its preference—given the choice—of great tunes over show-offish tomfoolery. The evening’s last bit of original material, “Desire,” got the crowd clapping and singing along (with some direction from Kotzen, whose own throat apparently never tires). By way of finale, Sheehan dazzled with a tune written during his Talas tenure but popularized by his stint with Roth: “Shyboy” found the guys going round-robin for the verses, and provided the perfect vehicle for some climactic stunt guitar and kinetic drumming.
The Sixxis warmed the Agora audience with forty minutes of precision hard rock that seemed tailor-made for guitar enthusiasts and gear heads. Led by versatile vocalist Vladdy Iskhakov, the Atlanta five-piece barreled through “Long Ago,” “Nowhere Close,” “Opportune Time” and more with fury and finesse. Bassist Mark Golden utilized two-handed tamping and funky thumb-slapping on his green five-string. Paul Sorah and Cameron Allen sang backup and lent their considerable guitar skills to the fray. Drummer Josh “J-Bake” Baker was a fan favorite, removing his Ramones shirt early on to abuse his kit with arms the size of tree trunks. You’d swear the skins on his snare and toms would rupture any second, given Baker’s brute force.
“Thanks, Cleveland!” Sorah exclaimed at the end. “We were draggin’ ass today, but you guys cheered us up!”