“Elevate,” the first song from the self-titled debut album of “supergroup” The Winery Dogs transported me instantly back to Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen. Singer/guitarist Richie Kotzen’s smoky voice is strong and commanding, leading to a powerful, bright radio-friendly chorus that has background vocals that, well, if they aren’t intentionally trying to emulate Van Halen they must have been in the bands subconscious. The mid-song bass solo, however, is a dead giveaway that this isn’t some cheap knock-off band. No sir, that’s the genuine Billy Sheehan making the kind of ruckus that only he can. And who is that keeping up with this proficient duo without breaking a sweat? It can only be ex-Dream Theater member Mike Portnoy, probably only using his left hand. Fortunately this killer song isn’t the only winner in a sea of dogs. Sorry… couldn’t resist. “Desire” showcases an intense groove, a guitar and bass passage that would be at home on any Steve Vai album, and impassioned soulful vocals. Listen to this song and you’ll be reminded of the power trio helmed by Hendrix. THE Hendrix. Not his cousin Melvin. Another strong offering is “Not Hopeless” which mixes Grand Funk Railroad with high-octane Mr. Big, throwing in a bit of technical wizardry to keep your interest but not to the point of distraction. In fact, like classic Van Halen, this album is about the music first and foremost, though the occasional head-turning shows of testosterone are not frowned upon. Neither are power ballads (“I’m No Angel” and “You Saved Me”) and apparently neither are songs populated primarily by Hammond organs and piano (“Regret”).
What could have been just another throw-away side-project album is instead a pleasing find sporting songs that appeal to technical musicians and casual listeners alike. While Sheehan’s involvement is obvious (dizzying bass parts take a bow in nearly every song) the album is primarily the work of Kotzen, both in the bluesy classic rock songwriting, the vintage yet energetic guitar rhythms, and the expressive vocals. These fellows squeeze the power trio format for all it’s worth, truly combining to form something greater than the sum of its parts. I’d ask when the next Winery Dogs album comes out but that would be whining.