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By Tim McPhate
Agoura Hills, Calif.
After storming through dates on the East Coast and overseas, the Winery Dogs made their much-anticipated live debut in California at the Canyon Club on Oct. 3. A modern power trio mixing elements of classic Cream, the instrumental muscle of vintage Rush and the sheer power of Soundgarden, the Winery Dogs are touring in support of their highly acclaimed self-titled debut album. The supergroup-caliber lineup comprises vocalist/guitarist Richie Kotzen (Mr. Big, Poison), drummer Mike Portnoy (Avenged Sevenfold, Dream Theater) and bassist Billy Sheehan (David Lee Roth, Mr. Big).
The Winery Dogs lifted off with "Elevate," an up-tempo number exemplifying their approach to songcraft: well-structured arrangements, meaty vocal hooks and timely instrumental flourishes. Kotzen and Sheehan (who played together previously in Mr. Big) nodded as they executed the song's unison tapping lines flawlessly.
"There's no way they can stop us now/We're the stars tonight and we are one," shouted Kotzen during the anthemic "We Are One." Underneath Kotzen's riffing, Sheehan and Portnoy locked in with the razor-sharp precision of a weathered rhythm section despite the fact they've only been playing together for a short time.
Portnoy took center stage during the moody "Time Machine," laying down a steady groove and interspersing syncopated drum fills during the instrumental breakdown. With an ear-to-ear grin, he kicked the tempo into overdrive in the song's outro as Kotzen fired up his wah-wah pedal and unleashed a spectacular off-the-cuff solo.
The veteran of the group, Sheehan is also unquestionably the trio's musical glue. For songs such as the quiet "You Saved Me" and gloomy "Damaged," his melodic bass parts complemented the rhythmic framework. Meanwhile, on more frenetic tunes such as "Six Feet Deeper" and "Not Hopeless," Sheehan went toe-to-toe with Kotzen, leading the instrumental frenzy with the type of hyperactive bass lines that have earned him his renown. (The bassist also added harmony vocals to many of the songs.)
Kotzen's star shined brightly throughout the set. The guitarist commanded his Fender Telecaster, whether comping rhythms or dizzying through his solos — all of which he played without a pick. His soulful vocals added depth to such introspective songs as "Regret" (during which he played organ and guitar) and "I'm No Angel." He strapped on an acoustic guitar for a solo version of "Stand," a torch song that dates back to his brief tenure in Poison in the early '90s. But Kotzen arguably saved his best for "The Dying," a foreboding epic ripe with swirling guitars, dynamic swings and a haunting melodic contour. With his eyes closed, Kotzen confessed, "I'm the war and I'm the soldier/I'm the dying and I am disease," after which he led the band out with an extended barrage of his patented legato-based lines.
Of course, not to be lost in the instrumental melee was the accessibility of the actual songs. Indeed, with a palette full of ballads, straight-ahead rockers and numbers with blues, soul and progressive nuances, the trio's versatility is formidable. This intangible combines with the band members' respective experience and virtuosic pedigree to form a musical blueprint that sets the Winery Dogs apart from their modern rock contemporaries.
An impressive debut album and exciting live set notwithstanding, time will tell if the Winery Dogs will drink from the vintage cup of rock hierarchy. But there's little doubt this trio possesses more than enough bark and bite to claw their way to the top.
"We Are One"
"One More Time"
"Six Feet Deeper"
"The Other Side"
"You Saved Me"
"Stand" (acoustic, originally recorded by Poison)
"You Can't Save Me" (Richie Kotzen solo song)
"Shine" (originally recorded by Mr. Big)
"I'm No Angel"
"Fooled Around And Fell In Love" (Elvin Bishop cover)
To catch the Winery Dogs in a city near you, click here for tour dates.