By Michael Lello
Acquiring the top individuals in your field does not necessarily make for a great team. Ask the California Angels how that’s worked out this season.
The same can be said in the music world, where the supergroup is often lesser than the sum of its parts. Does anyone really prefer Velvet Revolver to Guns N’ Roses and Stone Temple Pilots, or Audioslave to Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine?
So when news came out that bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, David Lee Roth) and drum wizard Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Avenged Sevenfold) had started a band named The Winery Dogs with guitar shredder Richie Kotzen (Poison, Mr. Big), it was reasonable to think the result would be a self-indulgent chops-fest, higher on style than substance.
That assumption was dashed to bits when the band released its self-titled debut last week, a hard rock record that certainly capitalizes on the players’ musicianship but puts the focus on good songwriting and hard-rock impact. Critics have noticed, and so have listeners, with the record debuting at No. 27 on the Billboard charts – extra impressive considering we’re talking about a new band on an independent record label.
Earlier this month, Sheehan called Highway 81 Revisited from a rehearsal hall, where the band was prepping for its first tour – which hits B.B. King’s in New York on Saturday, Aug. 3, and The Chameleon in Lancaster, Pa., on Sunday, Aug. 4 – to chat about the band’s origins and its plans.
He confirmed our impression, after hearing the record, that the goal was to make the album a straightforward one.
“Yeah. Because how many times do you need to prove yourself as a player?,” Sheehan said. “I think Mike has proven himself, look at all the drum polls he’s won. Richie is legendary, in my humble opinion, from what I’ve observed, and I’ve been around the block a couple times myself. So I love music, and I’m a fan, and I want to do a record that when people come over the house, it’s not some convoluted, crazy-ass, wild thing that only the musicians are going to stay in the room, and everyone else is going to leave while we listen.
“I don’t want to pander to people, but I want to reach people, and I think the best way to reach them is with some great songs, some great rock that I love.”
Sheehan and Portnoy initially worked with British guitarist John Sykes (Whitesnake, Thin Lizzy, Blue Murder, Tygers Of Pan Tang), but Sheehan said “it didn’t work out,” adding that “sometimes the chemistry just ain’t there,” and that “it’s nobody’s fault, everybody’s cool.” That’s when VH1’s “That Metal Show” host and radio personality Eddie Trunk suggested Kotzen to Portnoy.
“I kicked myself and thought, ‘Of course, Richie.’ I worked with him zillions of times. It was such an obvious choice that I didn’t see it,” Sheehan said, laughing. “Sure enough, we got in touch with him, Mike talked to him, and Richie was totally into it.”
The trio convened at Kotzen’s home, and this time, everything clicked.
“We’re all kind of Northeast guys, Mike’s a New York/New Jersey guy, Richie’s from Philadelphia, I’m from upstate [New York], Buffalo, so there’s a commonality to all of us and our histories,” explained Sheehan. “So we sat down and started playing, [and] right away, things were poppin’ up there. It sounded great, Richie was doing a little guitar chord changes and singing, Mike was keeping the beat, and I’d throw a bassline on there. We listened back the next day and made adjustments on what we had done, and we liked it. We all liked the same stuff, and we all disliked the same stuff, which is kinda cool. We were in sync.”
Kotzen has had an impressive career, but he is the least known Winery Dog. And the fans that did know of his work likely were not hip to his singing; on the album, he at different points conjures the vocal power of Chris Cornell, David Coverdale and Sammy Hagar.
“One of my goals on this record is to hope Richie Kotzen gets to be a superstar,” Sheehan said, matter-of-factly. “I don’t care about me, I’m fine. But Richie is so talented and has such a unique take on how he plays guitar . . . , and his voice is just killing it. . . . I think that’s why Eddie Trunk had suggested it too, because he’s the best-kept secret. There’s a groundswell of people on the Internet discovering him, so I’m really pleased with that, and I’m hoping he comes out of this a superstar because he deserves it. And Mike is already a superstar, so he’ll be more of one, and I’ll be tucked in there somewhere,” he said with a laugh.
Sheehan said the group will play “the whole record, pretty much” at its concerts, as well as “a couple other little surprises.”
Sheehan, who played along Steve Vai and Gregg Bissonette on Roth’s smash “Eat ’Em Smile” and “Skyscraper” albums and tours, said there are no concrete plans for Mr. Big but the band will “probably get together relatively soon and make a decision on what we’d like to do,” adding that “we’re all dear friends and had a wonderful time on our last tour.”
For now, though, any opportunities for Sheehan, Portnoy and Kotzen outside of The Winery Dogs will have to wait. The goal now for The Winery Dogs is to “play, play, play, do another record, play, play, play some more,” the bassist said.
“We really want to have this band be a focal point for all of us,” said Sheehan. “These days, the way the music business is, everyone’s got things on the side in your time off, and that’s the nature of the beast at this point, and I like that. But all of us want to make this a focal point rather than some kind of side project thing. I think when people get this record, if they do like it, hopefully they will, and when they hear it, they’ll turn their friends onto it and post about it, we really want to go out there and play. I feel we kinda owe them that. I don’t want to put together a record and forget about it and go somewhere else.”