In marketing, it is often said that it is better to “sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Every once in a while, there is a piece of steak that is so damn good, that there is no need to sell “the sizzle.” The Winery Dogs in a live music setting is that rare piece of steak that stands on its own. The steak in this case comes in the form of supreme musicianship and a band chemistry that is as close to perfect as you can get.
The Winery Dogs don’t have an elaborate stage show. Aside from the Snoop Dogg intro, a backdrop bearing the band’s logo, and a minimal amount of stage lighting, all of the magic created onstage comes courtesy of three virtuosos at the top of their game. Though Richie Kotzen, Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan each have decades of experience under their belts, they are still in their early stages as a unit, which makes their live show that much more impressive.
Ten months after wrapping up their first American tour at The Chance Theater in Pougkeepsie, NY (see review), The Winery Dogs returned to the New York metropolitan area, picking up where they left off at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Connecticut.
From the first note of “Oblivion” – the lead track from The Winery Dogs’ sophomore release (Hot Streak) – a palpable energy filled the room. Portnoy’s thunderous drums and Sheehan’s insane, frenetic bass playing laid the foundation for Kotzen to deliver his charisma-drenched vocals. With incredibly tight musicianship and vocal harmonies, you would never think that this was the first show of what promises to be an amazing tour.
Five songs into the set, Portnoy addressed the crowd, whose enthusiasm continued to grow with each song, showing an equal appreciation for the new and the familiar. In typical Portnoy fashion, his banter was entertaining as he discussed the pros and cons of attending the first show on the tour. The pro was that we would be the only ones to be truly surprised by the set, since setlists are available online almost immediately after the first show ends. The con was that the show may “suck” since they were still “learning” the songs because Hot Streak had just come out the day before.
Anyone who has ever seen The Winery Dogs in a live setting knows that Portnoy was being unnecessarily apologetic and humble. The fact of the matter is that The Winery Dogs on their worst night are still better than many bands on their best. If there were any mistakes made as they played many of the songs for the first time in front of an audience, it certainly wasn’t detectable. However, Portnoy’s candor created an interesting vibe in the room, especially during the slower-tempo songs where it felt like we were all invited into the band’s rehearsal. Despite the majority of the crowd having little to no familiarity with the new material, the songs were greeted with the same amount of enthusiasm as the songs from their first album.
It is human nature to want to hear certain songs when seeing a band in concert. The most popular songs are usually the ones that have gotten the most radio airplay, particularly with newer artists. Established artists often have trouble introducing new material in concert because fans want to hear the “classics.”
The Winery Dogs straddle the fence between new and established artists, but that is only part of the reason why fans embrace all of the material equally. There is something truly unique about this band. Because of their superior musicianship and chemistry, song selection is almost irrelevant. The setlist could stay the same throughout the tour or change on a nightly basis and the shows would be just as entertaining.
One of the most interesting facets of The Winery Dogs’ live show on the first tour was the dynamic that existed between the rhythm section and Kotzen. The lead singer/guitarist took on a cool, introspective role as Portnoy and Sheehan were the focal point with their energetic playing and showmanship. While that dynamic still exists, Kotzen has started to take on more of a traditional frontman role on this tour, allowing his personality to complement his playing. This was particularly notable in the middle of the set when Kotzen prompted the crowd to sing along during his acoustic performance of “Fire” (a slow-tempo track off of their latest album).
Aside from the use of an acoustic guitar and the Hammond organ on songs like “Think It Over” (another new track), there were no equipment changes during the show. The beauty of The Winery Dogs in a live setting is making complexity look simple. Even on the first night of the tour, this talented power trio displayed impressive dynamics, crisp breaks and the cohesiveness of a band that has been together for a few decades, rather than a few years.
The days of arena shows for rock bands have long since passed, however, The Winery Dogs are turning back the clock to a time when fans had true appreciation for artists, not just songs. If there is another band out there that receives ovations for songs that most people in the audience have never heard, I have yet to come across them. From the first note to the last, The Winery Dogs delivered an inspired performance that satisfied the energetic crowd while simultaneously leaving everyone wanting more.
Simply stated, The Winery Dogs “Double Down” tour is a must-see for any fan of live music.