Atomic: The Winery Dogs Reaching a Studio and Performance Peak

by David Masciotra

The Winery Dogs are one of the most exciting bands currently making music. A power trio of virtuosos, the lineup features Richie Kotzen on lead guitar and vocals, Mike Portnoy on drums, and the incomparable Billy Sheehan on bass. Kotzen has sharpened his teeth and toughened his fingertips across the spectrum of guitar-based genre. His solo records include acoustic singer/songwriter material, jazz fusion, and collaborations with Adrian Smith, a guitarist with the legendary Iron Maiden. Standing at the microphone, Kotzen manages to shout, croon, and falsetto with soulful vocals fit for a 1970s rhythm and blues record, seconds before launching into guitar solos that are unpredictable, imaginative, and dramatic. Behind him on the drums, Mike Portnoy plays with progressive fury - hammering down the thunder that rattles the theater, and at the same time, displaying the wunderkind skill that proves exactly why he was able to serve as one of the founders of Dream Theater. Sheehan's bass dexterity coalesces everything from Lemmy Kilmister's bottom end crush to Stanley Clarke's jazz-inflected creativity.

A supergroup among supergroups, one of The Winery Dogs' most impressive feats is that their composition and performance are never gratuitous. They write and play songs that are well-structured and aesthetically sophisticated, while never sacrificing essential elements of rock and roll raucousness.

They are currently promoting their latest record, which takes a page out of the Led Zeppelin manual with its simple, numerical title, III. After listening to the record on repeat, but before attending their live appearance at the Aracda Theatre in St. Charles, IL (40 miles outside of Chicago), I spoke with Richie Kotzen on the phone.

"The approach with The Winery Dogs," Kotzen said, "is that we'll get a room and improvise while recording. We build musical skeletons though improvisation, and I'll live with that until, suddenly, I have an idea for a lyric. Most of the time the melodies begin to happen during the improvisation. I'll start scatting without lyrics. Then, we start putting the meat and flesh on the skeleton - not to sound too gruesome about it."

What differentiates III from the two records that proceed it is the full investment in improvisation as a source of musical genesis. Kotzen told me that with the first two records, the self-titled debut and Hot Streak, he brough a good deal of material to the initial recording/jam sessions. For III, he brought nothing, allowing the organic and mysterious element of chemistry to inspire sonic skeletons, which would, eventually, become living and breathing songs.

"The word is 'trust,'" Kotzen said when I asked how the Dogs differ on the third album and tour as compared to the previous two, "Initially, we had our perceptions about how we want to play and how we want to be represented as individuals. So, in the beginning, we were collaborating, but also getting out footing together. Now, we have such a supply of trust that there is very little resistance in the process. Certainly, we see things differently sometimes - maybe I hear something, and Mike hears a little slower tempo - but, because of how much we've worked together, there is a lot more trust and much less resistance to a particular choice when developing a composition."

The more relational and free "process" of creativity is audible on the new record, which up until the present, is their best. III's collection of songs has the band at maximum aggression, maintaining high energy and cohesion, allowing each individual to step into the spotlight, while still playing, collectively, as a unit. When I described III as more "aggressive" than its predecessors to Kotzen, he did not disagree, but chose to remain neutral. "I don't listen to music the way the listener does. I'm never thinking of the album as a whole. I'm working song by song, even moment by moment. When people say 'this album is more aggressive,' maybe that's right, but I can't view it that way. All I can do is play the songs."

Kotzen, Portnoy, and Sheehan were conscious of their further exploration of their musical chemistry, allowing for longer jams and more extended improvisation. The album closing, "The Red Wine," reaches the eight minute mark, while "Stars" stretches over six minutes. Several others have running times hovering around five-and-a-half minutes. The songs benefit from more space, more detailed phrasing, and more contrasts of light and shade. "What's cool about 'The Red Wine,' is that the song ending jam is from the tracking session," Kotzen said. "That's a real live moment. You know, we just said, 'why not stretch out?' We're a power trio. We do it live. Why not capture it on the album?"

The album, III, captures the full bark and growl of The Winery Dogs. The lead single, "Xanadau," kicks off the album with frenetic energy. Kotzen and Sheehan double a riff over a relentless assault of a drum beat. The song moves at a rapid speed, while Kotzen demonstrates his soulful vocal prowess, showing off how his singing style can resemble everyone from Chris Cornell to Prince.

Unlike many records, it does not have a weak link, but a few of the particularly strong points in the chain are the aforementioned numbers that close with extended jams, "Stars," "Pharoah," and "The Red Wine," the latter of which Kotzen told me has become the band's "party anthem for live shows."

"Lorelei," a bluesy midtempo tune comes closest to a ballad, acting as a dramatic lead-in to "The Red Wine," while "Gaslight" wages an assault on the senses, firing on all cylinders with reckless fury. Along with "Mad World," "Gaslight" shows an expansion of lyrical subject matter for Kotzen, who although "not a political guy," uses those two songs to address how "things have gotten pretty berserk," and "people are more divided than ever before in my life."

"We're more of a live band," Kotzen said during our discussion, only to repeat the same sentiment when admitting that "what I really look forward to with this band is playing live."

It was easy to share Kotzen's excitement when The Winery Dogs took the stage at the Arcada Theatre. After strutting out to a recording of George Clinton's "Atomic Dog," the band roared into "Gaslight." Portnoy's ballistic beat accelerated the song and created the rhythm for Sheehan and Kotzen's rapid-fire riffs. "Xanadau" immediately followed with Kotzen and company maintaining the energy and intensity - a dominant forces from which they never relented throughout their 90-minute performance. The music was both joyful and merciless.

The description applies equally to the old and new material. "Desire," from their first record, showcased one of Kotzen's best guitar solos of the night - a fiery and unpredictable build-up that culminated with the guitar slinger swinging his instrument side to side, leading Portnoy to the other side of the interlude. "Stars" deconstructed into an extended improvisational session with Sheehan and Kotzen trading licks, before exploding into a frenzy.

One of The Winery Dogs' soulful ballads might have wisely provided a little relief mid-set, but few in the audience looked in need of a breather. Instead, they reacted with greater fervor to each song.

"I call it a spectacle," Kotzen said, "Because our show is three giant musical personalities coming together. Some bands are built around a lead singer or a flamboyant drummer, but because of what we do, it does become a spectacle. The audience isn't sure who to watch. It is what, I think, makes us unique."

The interplay and chemistry of The Winery Dogs has developed with greater creativity and cohesion since their previous tours. Working as a collective unit, Kotzen, Sheehan, and Portnoy sound in sync, and the future promises only more jams, more dynamism, and more imaginative exploration.

When I asked Kotzen how he alters his guitar playing approach for The Winery Dogs, given his wide range of style on his solo output, he said that "everything with this rhythm section is supercharged."

"Supercharged" is as accurate a label as any for III, the Winery Dogs live experience, and their entire musical identity. It is a pleasure to try to keep up.

David Masciotra is the author of several books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky), Metallica by Metallica (a 33 1/3 book), and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters. He has also written for the New Republic, No Depression, the Guardian, and many other publications about politics, literature, and music.

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