The term “supergroup” has been bandied about a lot in relation to rock bands that gather together noteworthy people from other bands. Yet few actually deserve the adjective “super.”
Any doubt as to the band’s status—or its longevity—was put to rest in a July 30 show, near the end of the band’s current tour promoting its 2013 debut album The Winery Dogs—that found the “Dogs” not only playing with incredible fervor—but also showing how much they’ve gelled as a band since their formation.
Having seen one of the Dogs’ first-ever gigs in August 2013 gave me some perspective on how far the band has come since then. Besides playing a much larger room—the wonderful Keswick Theatre, based in Philadelphia suburb Glenside, Pa.—than the small nightclub where I first saw them, the band is also far more seasoned, and—for lack of a better word—comfortable now.
Not that they were uncomfortable last year, but the band was relatively new at that point. They’d formed in 2012 and quickly wrote and recorded their first album, but this wasn’t a band that had a long history of gigging together. Actually, they didn’t play a show until after the first album came out!
But by July 2014, the band certainly had plenty of shows under their belt. They’ve played all around the world to promote their excellent debut CD The Winery Dogs, and are a road-seasoned outfit by this point.
Even before the band hit the stage, it was clear they’re moving up in the world—the large-scale backdrop was a clear visual indication of how far the band has come since its early club gigs.
And while the Keswick wasn’t standing room only, the theatre certainly hosted a loud, impassioned crowd that night, up on their collective feet with the first song and rarely taking a break to sit down.
The energy the three master musicians in Winery Dogs were putting out that night certainly was contagious. Kicking off with “Elevate,” one of the standout tracks from their debut, the band (seemingly effortlessly) unleashed a torrent of speedy licks, pounding rhythms and emotive vocals, gliding from strength to strength as they hit the highlights from their CD.
Songs like “I’m No Angel,” “Damaged” and “Not Hopeless” were like old friends to the fans who’ve been with the band since the album came out, but even those folks unfamiliar with their original pieces could quickly appreciate the catchy, memorable tracks.
And while Kotzen and Sheehan can trade crazy-fast licks with the fervor of early-years Van Halen, The Winery Dogs’ music is all about the songs. Centered around Kotzen’s soulful voice (which at times does resemble the singing of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, in all of the best ways), the songs do give the band space to stretch out and show their chops, but never at the expense of the melodies or lyrics.
As a guitarist, Kotzen just gets more and more impressive. The fact that the guy doesn’t use a guitar pick (except during the show’s acoustic set) just makes his playing more uncanny. He does get a special tone on his custom Fender Telecaster from his touch on the strings—and as both he and Sheehan are finger-players, they can get a tandem tonality as they do their amazing runs of note bursts together during the show.
Sheehan—what can I say? As a bass player myself, I always feel like hanging up the four-string after I see this guy play. He just takes it to a whole other level. He is a guitar hero who just happens to play bass. Sheehan has done so much to advance the technique of rock bass guitar, I think it’s fair to call him the Eddie Van Halen of bass. He always gets a solo segment at Winery Dogs shows, and it’s not a bathroom break, believe me.
This show’s dexterous bass solo morphed into the multiple-note bass intro that starts off “You Saved Me,” which was partially sung by Portnoy (on the verses) at this show, as he explained it was his wedding anniversary, and the song was dedicated to his wife, who was in the audience.
Of course, no Winery Dogs review would be complete without discussing Portnoy. Besides being one of the most nimble and skilled rock drummers ever (a point proven long ago in his work with Dream Theater and prog-geared drumming with Neal Morse, Transatlantic and Flying Colors), Portnoy is also an amazing showman—somewhat of a rarity for drummers, who have enough to keep them busy without worrying about being flamboyant entertainers.
Portnoy certainly is the latter, and the trio format gives him plenty of space to work the crowd and fill the performance with his special flair. Portnoy is such a natural drummer that he can do much of his Winery Dogs work with one hand (literally), allowing him to use his free hand to “conduct” the audience and stir them to action.
Portnoy also showed a new move at this show (at least a new one to me) using his foot to kick one of his cymbals—in time, of course.
This show wasn’t simply a rerun of the show I saw last year. One welcome addition was the appearance of a number of cover songs in the set list, which were spun out of the band’s original songs in a jammy way that recalled how Led Zeppelin would spontaneously move from song to song. “Not Hopeless” was fused with Jimi Hendrix’ “Hey Joe,” and “Desire” transitioned to Sly & the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.” And following an acoustic interlude, the band launched into a rock-solid take on Gary Wright’s “Love is Alive” (hope they record that one!)
In fact, the final song of the night, which capped off the encore, was a cover, but one that at least Sheehan had a hand in the original recording: “Shyboy,” a speedy slammer from the David Lee Roth album Eat Em & Smile, which Roth recorded with a supergroup of sorts including Sheehan and guitarist Steve Vai (in fact, Roth’s “Shyboy” was a cover, as it was originally recorded by Sheehan’s old band Talas). Kotzen spun out a barrage of notes, expertly recalling Sheehan’s interplay with Vai, and Portnoy and Sheehan shared vocals on this one as they have been doing in their fusion shows with guitarist Tony MacAlpine and keyboardist Derek Sherinian.
As the final chords of “Shy Boy” rang out, Portnoy had some Keith Moon fun, kicking over the pieces of his drum kit as he told the crowd The Winery Dogs are the “real deal,” a band that is here to stay—and one that will be back next year.
That’s good news for any rock fan. This is a tremendous live group, a power trio that’s truly powerful, totally compelling and tremendously entertaining. The fabulous staging (with primo lights and sound) at the Keswick Theatre ensured a fantastic all-around night of top-flight rock and roll.
Don’t miss The Winery Dogs when they come back around, hopefully promoting album #2. Go to thewinerydogs.com for future updates.