Photos & Story by Scott A. Smith
How many bands has former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy been in over the last decade?
That could be a million-dollar question for many rock followers.
Portnoy’s latest post-DT project is The Winery Dogs, a powerhouse of a trio that magically marries Superman-like instrumental abilities with a disciplined focus on the song. Also featuring bass guru Billy Sheehan (Mr. Big, David Lee Roth) and singer-guitarist Richie Kotzen (Mr. Big, Poison), The Winery Dogs showed how to be hard-hitting aggressive in sound without shoving melody away from the front-and-center position May 20 at Neumeier’s Rib Room & Beer Garden in Fort Smith, Ark.
Following an impressive opening set by Charm City Devils, The Winery Dogs commandeered the stage by immediately diving into the jet-propelled “Elevate,” pulling the capacity crowd into a frenzied wave of exciting rock and roll music. Assertive, loud and air-tight on their stops, starts and everything in between, the group pounded out rhythms and patterns that did justice to the studio versions on its self-titled debut CD. In fact, some of the live versions, like the terrific, slightly proggish “Time Machine,” came off even better on the Fort Smith stage.
Wearing a headband, black tank top and shorts (and, for the first song, black sunglasses), Portnoy maintained his intensity while keeping a comedic, quasi-Keith-Moon vibe going throughout the night. The acclaimed drummer made funny faces, pointed drum sticks at the cheering audience, bounced countless drum sticks off an array of cymbals and drum-shell edges – all in mid-song without ever missing a beat.
Utilizing a much smaller drum set than his kit in the equally outstanding band Transatlantic, Portnoy also went easier on his double-bass drum patterns for The Winery Dogs’ music compared to the busy footwork of some of his other groups. In reality, The Winery Dogs is even better than Dream Theater, simply because the new band leans more to heavy rock than (the still good) DT’s heavy metal sonics. Need proof? Just ask those who attended the Fort Smith show – their perpetual smiles as the Dogs’ “Desire,” “I’m No Angel,” “Not Hopeless” and a riveting cover of the Jimi Hendrix/Billy Roberts staple “Hey Joe” blasted throughout the venue and across the downtown streets of Fort Smith served as a uncontested evidence.
Much of The Winery Dogs’ love affair with melodic, crunchy rock and desire to steer away from a heavy metal configuration stems from Kotzen, who admitted in a recent interview that much of metal music leaves him cold. Instead, The Winery Dogs is the perfect rock band for listeners to absorb. Sure, metal heads will dig them because The Winery Dogs without a doubt possess an assertive playing style – Kotzen frequently made his guitar howl and scream – but it’s more of a rock sound. The Dogs’ sound is incredibly diverse.
And, amazingly, The Winery Dogs is a three-piece outfit. Like Rush, the three Dogs make a Godzilla-size sound, with Sheehan’s incredibly expressive, incredibly complex bass playing negating any potential need for a second guitar. The blond-haired four-stringer frequently committed that big no-no act that would have piano teachers all over the world fainting – Sheehan constantly “crossed hands” when tapping his bass neck, pulling his bass strings away from his bass pickups and applying pressure to his bass’ head stock, and it was a beautiful sight and sound.
Sheehan’s bass solo defied logic – not one person left the room or even looked away from Sheehan’s speedy fret-work. Sheehan’s solo was a part-furious, part-orchestral affair, maintaining Sheehan’s place alongside fellow bass legends Geddy Lee, John Entwistle, Chris Squire and Free’s Andy Fraser.
On May 20, inside a packed Rib Room, The Winery Dogs wasn’t just a tight, professional band. For those magical two hours, Portnoy, Sheehan and Kotzen were the best band on the planet.