So, when you’re the hardest working man in showbusiness (presumably already trademarked, patent pending), what do you do when your main enterprises are having a bit of a break? Have a holiday in the sun? Take up painting? Or start a supergroup and put out the best classic rock album since Night Flight Orchestra’s Internal Affairs? Yep, when you’re Mike Portnoy, (for it is he), evidently you do the latter. The Winery Dogs arrives fully formed, raring to go and full to its brim with more tunes than all of the nights of the Prom.
The Winery Dogs is the debut record from Portnoy’s side project with bass legend and former David Lee Roth partner in crime Billy Sheehan and former Poison and Mr Big guitarist Richie Kotzen. So far, so interesting. What sets The Winery Dogs apart from similar, often folly laden enterprises, is not just the quality of the musicianship (taken as a given) or the quality of the song-writing (uniformly high across the record) but it’s the gusto, the energy and the sheer bloody joy of making and playing this type of music that makes The Winery Dogs an unexpected but highly infectious pleasure.
Portnoy has previously spoken about his desire to play in a power trio and re-create a record that had echoes of the classic rock of his youth- Cheap Trick, Grand Funk Railroad, Van Halen– and The Winery Dogs does just that. This is a record that immediately feels warm and familiar: at times it’s akin to seeing an old friend you haven’t spoken to for ages and being able to pick up exactly where you left off. Lead single and opening track Elevate gives you more than an impression of what’s in store. Big melody, big tune, big, well- a bit like Mr Big, to be honest. And, as any fule know, there’s nothing, repeat nothing, wrong with that at all.
The rest of the record delivers in much the same way. Desire sounds like second single in waiting, another addictive melody thrown around like confetti at a wedding; there’s a delicious groove underpinning We Are One; I’m No Angel sees us in big ballad territory, a blues soaked riff and plaintive vocals that remind me of Coverdale at his most contemplative; Sheehan is all over The Other Side with a rolling bassline that will have you playing air bass for weeks; You Saved Me just, well…if one can be somewhat effusive in one’s praise.. knocks it out of the park. It’s the best Hagar era Van Halen song never written.
You can talk about this album as what Mike Portnoy did next, you can talk about this album as ” a genuine supergroup effort” but for me, this is Richie Kotzen’s album. Often seen as “the guy who came in when X left”, the veritable eternal bridesmaid, on The Winery Dogs, he comes into his own, stepping up to the plate and bringing all of his considerable skill and experience to bear. Not only does he clearly love this kind of thing, he turns in a terrific vocal performance, full of passion and intensity: he owns the record. Why Kotzen isn’t held in greater esteem will remain one of rock’s mysteries. Perhaps this record will shift perceptions.
This is the kind of record that creeps up on you, gets under your skin and then just stays there. You might have started off thinking about this record as “what Portnoy did next” but you end it excitedly anticipating when the next Winery Dogs record is going to get made and wondering how you can get tickets to see them live. As classic rock goes, it pushes all the buttons and then some more. The Winery Dogs is utterly effortless and utterly charming. A blast.