By Michael Lello
Photos by Tom Roarty
NEW YORK – Partway through The Winery Dogs’ show on Saturday at BB King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square, a woman excitedly told this reviewer, “Write down that you’re witnessing history! Like when I saw Guns N’ Roses’ first show at The Ritz!”
A lofty proclamation indeed, perhaps caught up in the excitement of the moment — and fueled by the contents of the bottle in her hand.
But she had a point. The Winery Dogs – singer/guitarist Richie Kotzen, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Mike Portnoy – were in the throes of their triumphant sold-out U.S. debut show, fresh off a string of dates in Japan and Brazil and their freshman album entering the charts at No. 27 amid considerable critical buzz, hammering through a powerhouse set that included a performance of the entire self-titled CD and a few other choice cuts.
After an introduction from longtime New York radio DJ and VH1 Classic’s “That Metal Show” host Eddie Trunk – who had a hand in the band’s formation when he suggested they give Kotzen a try – the trio slammed into “Elevate,” the record’s lead track, a molten slab of prog-flavored, bluesy hard rock, Sheehan headbanging along to his rumbling basslines and the cathartic chorus: “Elevate me, take me higher/ I don’t want to be wasted.” “Come on, New York!” Portnoy shouted, egging on the already amped-up audience which was gleefully singing along to the new band’s new song.
The Winery Dogs’ diversity was on display from the get-go, with the next track, “Criminal,” built upon a stomping “When The Levee Breaks”-ish riff, a modern-rock chorus and a funked-out bluesy bridge. Like the band itself, the disparate parts created something seamless, something that defines the cliché “greater than the sum of its parts.” As Kotzen wailed away with heavy metal riffs, Sheehan and Portnoy, in lockstep with one another, added impressive flourishes of their own.
The anthemic “We Are One” found Portnoy spicing his fills with double bass runs and Sheehan pulling off his bass with both hands with flair. Indeed, if Portnoy and Sheehan are The Winery Dogs’ show ponies, then Kotzen is their workhorse – and their heart and soul. While his fellow Dogs might have won more musician magazine polls, his singing, rooted in classic r&b and soul, and his playing, which blends Jimi Hendrix’s wild-eyed blues with more intricate jazz fusion and Vai/Satriania guitar hero histrionics, are this band’s secret (and, increasingly, non-so-secret) weapons.
“One More Time” offered a boogying riff reminiscent of Little Feat, while “Time Machine” sprung from a sharp metal riff and featured a brooding chorus that brought Alice In Chains to mind. Of all the songs on the album, and in the show, “Time Machine” features the most out-and-out prog rock moment, a spiraling instrumental section with a an “Achilles’ Last Stand” feel that eventually effortlessly leads back into triumphant chords. It’s a fine example of the band’s restraint; even when the members decide to flex some of their legendary individual instrumental muscle, it’s always done to serve the song, not vice versa.
The slinky “Damaged” offered a change of pace, a mid-tempo introspective number that showed why Kotzen’s powerful and emotive voice has drawn comparisons to Chris Cornell. It was only a brief tender moment, however, with the hard rock barreling back full-force on “Six Feet Deeper,” before a relatively brief Portnoy drum solo that led into “The Other Side” – a song, like most of the album, that has immense rock radio potential, with a simple and powerful grunge breakdown.
Portnoy, who did the most talking all night, introduced Sheehan, who launched into a fleet-fingered and adventurous solo, hammering out two-fisted runs and coaxing guitar-like upper-register sounds out of his bass, strumming, plucking and eventually tapping out the melodic main riff to “You Saved Me”; it was a beautiful transition and one of the evening’s more entertaining stretches. Kotzen brilliantly delivered the Portnoy-penned lyrics with the drummer himself throwing in some big fills during the standout song, before the band launched into “Not Hopeless.”
“We’re going to turn the stage over to Mr. Richie Kotzen,” Portnoy told the crowd, leaving the performance space to who you might’ve called a somewhat reluctant frontman, at least to that point. But here, Kotzen seemed to loosen up and take a more confident position. He removed the flannel long-sleeve shirt covering his black tanktop, tied it around his waist and switched to an acoustic guitar for an intimate and fan-pleasing reading of “Stand,” the gospel-inflected track from “Native Tongue” — the 1993 Poison album on which he played. Sheehan and Portnoy returned for a foray into the dark, profane and dangerous “You Can’t Save Me” from Kotzen’s 2006 solo record “Into The Black” – a nice bookend to the previously delivered “You Saved Me” — and “Shine,” from his brief tenure in Mr. Big alongside Sheehan.
A loose-limbed monster guitar riff signaled the opening of the album’s standout power ballad “I’m No Angel,” a slow burner with chilling lead vocals and nice harmonies on the choruses and a crystalline guitar solo. After another album cut, “The Dying,” Kotzen sat down to play organ for the only time Saturday for the set-ending “Regret,” which also closes the album. It was neat to see Sheehan singing along away from his vocal mic, a sign that this is a band truly enjoying its material.
After a quick break, The Winery Dogs returned to the stage for a two-song encore: a cover of Elvin Bishop’s hit “Fooled Around And Fell In Love,” a fun bar-band moment with Kotzen nailing an elongated vocal note, and “Desire,” one of the CD’s lead singles. “Desire,” a funky slice of hard rock, was a great way to end the show, and the band – which “had not seen a bed in 48 hours” since flying in from South America, according to Sheehan – was still playing with fiery energy, even stretching out into an almost Phish-like jam, with Kotzen singing the word “desire” over and over, before crashing back into the chorus, Sheehan jumping up and down while playing.
Saturday night was a celebration, for band and fans alike, and hopefully a sign of things to come. Walking out of the hall, up the stairs and into a crisp Manhattan night, one couldn’t help but think about the next show, the next album, more music from a hot new act whose overall impact is even more impressive than its members’ track records.