Everything you need to know about The Winery Dogs can be gleaned from the room we’re in now. We’re in the 02 Academy in north London for the first night of the band’s first European tour and the show is sold out. Some 800 fans are packed in tight to see this power-trio supergroup, its members’ collective histories narrated through the T-shirts peppering the noisily appreciative audience: Mr. Bigs jostle for position with vintage David Lee Roths, Dream Theaters and Transatlantics.
Just two nights previously, Dogs drummer Mike Portnoy won the Virtuoso gong at the 2013 Prog Awards. If he were still a member of prog-metal titans Dream Theater, right now he’d be nestled amid a vast armoury of kick-drums, toms and cymbals. Tonight his kit is Bonham-basic.
“A big reason for needing a break from Dream Theater was it was getting so routine,” he explains. “I needed new environments to motivate me. And the Winery Dogs is part of that. When I’m on stage it feels natural. It’s a rebirth for me, a reinvention.”
Standing next to Portnoy’s drum riser is the man he calls “the Jimi Hendrix of bass”. Veteran Billy Sheehan shot to fame in the late 80s as part of Dave Lee Roth’s Eat ’Em And Smile-era band with Steve Vai, and has held down the low end for, among many others, Mr. Big. Sheehan’s fusion project Niacin recently hit the Jazz Chart in the US with their latest album Krush.
“I had to prioritise the Winery Dogs,” he says. “I love the record, I loved the way it was working and a lot of people were excited, so I thought, ‘Let’s go with
this.’ The hang is so important – we’re going to be on a bus together for months. Right away we had funny things happen, stories to tell. It’s been real easy. And when things have gone wrong and gotten a little heated – touring South America is tough – they’ve gone back to normal. We got through all that.”
At the mic to Sheehan’s left, Richie Kotzen plays knuckle-popping guitar and wraps his Cornell-esque voice around the catchy Elevate and a couple of other highlights from the band’s US Top Five, self-titled debut album. Kotzen has come a long way in the 20-plus years since he debuted on Mike Varney’s elite axe label Shrapnel. Quickly tiring of the ‘shred-head’ tag, he’s built up both a solid body of work and a respectable global following as a singer/songwriter, hitting pay dirt through brief tenures in Poison and Mr. Big.
“For some people I’m appearing as a new artist,” he says, “but for me it’s business as usual. I’m not doing anything in this band that I haven’t done on my previous records. I usually play in a trio, sing, play guitar and write songs. It wasn’t a stretch for me. For Mike it’s probably the biggest difference – he’s normally in a bigger band with a more elaborate drum set. This is a whole new approach for him, which is exciting to be around.”
Portnoy and Sheehan have played in many projects over the past two decades, and had discussed forming a power trio. When a hook-up with ex-Whitesnake guitarist John Sykes fell through, a friend suggested Sheehan’s Mr. Big buddy Kotzen. “I thought: ‘Of course!’” says the bassist. “‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ We met at Richie’s home studio in LA, jammed some riffs, and within an hour or two we had five skeletal pieces of music. Richie had a couple of songs already done and we worked on those, and put the record together easily. It was a good sign that it wouldn’t be hard labour. That’s indicative of a lot of things – great co-operation, everyone listening to each other musically. Not a lot of players do it.”
When Kotzen got the call, he was gearing up to record his 20th solo album. “Honestly, the real appeal was to take a break from myself,” he says. “I love making my records and touring with my guys, but I wanted someone else to share the responsibility. Then I got that call, and it was perfect timing for me. I’m the principal writer, but Billy and Mike take a lot of the other weight off my shoulders.”
On stage, there’s no faking the musical chemistry between them. Backstage, there’s a tangible sense of mutual respect, quiet admiration and inter-dependence. “When you’re in a ‘supergroup’ like this, you’ve got to learn to keep your ego in check,” says Portnoy. “Billy’s been the hired gun, like with David Lee Roth, and he’s had bands where he’s been the boss. My experience with Transatlantic, Flying Colors and Avenged Sevenfold has helped me learn how to compromise and work with different personalities. Richie’s had the least amount of that experience. He’s been the most used to calling the shots, but he’s also probably the least-known member of this band with the least experience in terms of numbers. But he respects mine and Billy’s past and our opinions. He’s such a tremendous talent and hasn’t had his full day in the sun yet. We want the Winery Dogs to do that for him.”
Musically, the trio are aiming for 70s rock, citing bands with broad appeal: Humble Pie, Free, Bad Company, Van Halen. Everybody loves them, says Portnoy. “And you don’t have to be a mathematician to appreciate us. We do have a musicianship angle, but at the end of the day it’s all about the songs, the vocals and the hooks.”
“It’s a great mix,” offers Sheehan. “The prog people who come to see the band are pleasantly surprised that there’s some playin’, and Joe Average is surprised because there’s songs he can sing along to.”
The roar that fills the Academy as they take their bow indicates that the music, and the hang, are clearly working. And each band member is keen to emphasise that this is not a side project. “Transatlantic is my total prig side project,” says Portnoy, “but the Winery Dogs feels like it could be my new home base. People are coming in as fans of the three individuals – and at this early stage, that’s why we’re selling out the shows – but they’re leaving as fans of this band.”
“The thing is, we don’t have to do this,” says Kotzen. “We all have our other things. We’re doing it because we love playing together, the music clicked, and we wrote a record that really excited us. If you have that purity, everything else goes up to another level.”
The Winery Dogs is available via Loud And Proud Records.
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