The term “power trio” has been used many times over the years in the world of rock music to describe the dynamics of a rock band pushed to new heights using a small squad, in terms of band personnel. Classic bands like Mountain, Cream, and Rush being some of the obvious examples of what the past has brought us, and the possibilities of what great music can be made with just three members using the basics – guitar, bass, and drums.
What separates a band like The Winery Dogs from all others is the sheer brilliance of the performance and technique from the hands and minds of the three members, guitarist/vocalist Richie Kotzen, bassist Billy Sheehan, and drummer Mike Portnoy, all virtuosos, who, when gathered together, become one of contemporary rock’s most explosive units. These are three well respected soloists in their various fields, and are mutually admired by virtually everyone in their field, from fellow musicians to critics. So when they get together, as they have for their latest recording and tour, it is something that is not to be missed.
On the third night of their swing through Southern California to promote their latest release, simply entitled “III,” I ventured out to the legendary Belly Up Tavern and, along with a sold-out crowd, enjoyed getting my mind blown by these three gentlemen who proceeded to blow the roof off the place.
After the opening strains of the Grand Funk Railroad’s classic “We’re an American Band” cranked out over the public address system, The Winery Dogs kept the adrenaline-charged crowd wide-eyed as they burst out with “Gaslight” and “Xanadu” from their latest. Kotzen, sporting a black fedora and a red wine colored guitar, was in fine form. I have seen him perform many times over the years, but tonight he looked very relaxed and smiled much more than the usually studious look he sports onstage. His vocals matched his guitar work in fluidity as well as resonance.
Sheehan does things with an electric bass that I simply have never seen anyone else do. He plays it almost like a shredding lead guitarist would, and he has done this for years. Tonight he was completely locked in and loaded with his bandmates as they went through an 18-song set that featured songs from all three of their LPs. “Captain Love” and “Hot Streak” were well received, as was the grungy “Time Machine” and the crowd roared their approval.
As great as those songs were, the six songs from “III” are what took everything to a new level. The pop-influenced rocker “Breakthrough” has everything – from a great melody line and spectacular vocals, to a driving bass line and frantic drum fills that support, but don’t interrupt the flow of the song. It had all this and much more, in under five minutes.
The true standout for me was the song “Stars.” Kotzen took his talents to a new level with this one. It is a moody, straight ahead, rock/soul fusion, spotlighting Kotzen’s soulful, pleading vocals, punctuated by Sheehan and Portnoy being completely in sync, before Kotzen goes completely off the chain with some insane guitar shredding, which brought the thrilled crowd to a fever pitch. It was indeed a “highlight of highlights” as far as what this band is capable of.
The song “Damaged” brought the frantic pace down a bit, as the crooning side of Kotzen’s incredible vocal range found its rhythm and blues home. He, of course punctuated it with some dazzling guitar runs, and Portnoy’s soft approach to his drum kit added to the “quiet storm” feel of this outstanding number. Their influences of 1970’s soul music shined like the sun on this particular number especially.
“The Red Wine” a lesson on contemporary rock fusion, with its funky bass lines and busy drum fills, combined with Kotzen’s blistering lead guitar and vocals. Sheehan even playfully used a bottle of wine to slide up and down the neck of his bass guitar for added effect.
Portnoy still had plenty to add to melting the faces off the drum fans in the crowd, and he was very playful all evening, clearly enjoying every minute behind his drum kit, and performing with his bandmates. The impossible pace of the set closing “Oblivion” in which he and Sheehan almost seem to be trying to out-shred each other, but somehow are completely in sync is what separate them from most of the great rock rhythm sections, and I’ve seen them all. It is truly superb musicianship on display, and when you add Kotzen, and what he brings to the table, it is truly, yes, like a fine wine, aged to perfection, smooth to the taste.
THE WINERY DOGS
The Belly Up Tavern
Solana Beach, California
As the band left the stage, the truly stunned audience seemed to be collecting their thoughts on what they had just witnessed, as they applauded aggressively, screaming for more. The band obliged, and Kotzen, seated at an electric piano for the waltzing “Regret” led the charge. This is where he delved into his high tenor, slightly falsetto range of his multifaceted vocals, slowly building the tempo until his guitar tech handed him his guitar and he cranked up the song to new heights, once again, never deviating from the original key. It was simply brilliant to witness.
The band picked up the pace and went back to their self-titled debut release for “Elevate,” which did just that, and ended the set. This particular number gives equal amounts of “shred time” to all three members to shine, from Sheehan’s rolling bass solo, to Portnoy’s incredible drum fills, to Kotzen’s fluid guitar lines, and electric vocals, it is almost like a free-form jam at times, but without the stops and starts. It flows seamlessly, and is a perfect example of what three masters of their craft can do when gathered together with the right vibe.
When they were finished, and the roaring crowd started to collect themselves, I noticed quite a few people simply mouthing the words “Wow!” It was a masterful performance from a masterful musical collective, and it’s hard to imagine seeing a band consisting of only three members putting out such a sound that sounds like it was made from an army.
Raise a glass to the mighty Winery Dogs. Their III Tour will continue on the West Coast until the end of May and then they are on to Europe and beyond. Don’t miss them when they come to your town.