Okay… let me confess this straight up. I am a HUGE Richie Kotzen fanboy. Since bursting onto the Shrapnel-era shred scene with his blinding technical ability, he has been a major creative force in two huge bands – Mr Big and Poison – and matured into an amazing frontman and vocalist in his own right, with a singing voice reminiscent of a slightly less depressive Chris Cornell. His guitar chops have evolved along with him, and these days more often than not Richie slings his signature version of the traditional Fender Telecaster, plucking out soulful licks with his bare fingers, between bursts of legato jazz-fusion licks.
So… have you realized that this review features Richie Kotzen yet? Hahaha.
The Winery Dogs is the new trio featuring Richie Kotzen, Billy Sheehan (Mr Big, Steve Vai) and Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), and also the name of their explosive first album together. As a rabid RK fan, I’m extremely stoked to see him stepping back into the limelight again with such iconic alumni of legendary bands alongside him. Billy Sheehan must be the world’s most recognizable “lead bassist”, and who better to anchor the beat than technician extraordinaire Mike Portnoy?
Pop in the CD (yes, an actual CD! I had to get my copy all the way from eBay Japan, where the album was first released – USA release coming soon), the first thing that hits your ears is the lead single, Elevate. Instantly, Richie Kotzen’s signature brand of high-octane bluesy rock bursts out of the speakers. His gravelly voice is in fine form, belting out an edgy vocal melody, interspersed with some killer coordinated licks with a distinctive, growling bass tone that can only belong to Billy Sheehan. When we hit the chorus, the song bursts into a catchy, uplifting singalong melody that reminds me of the best of Mr Big era pop anthems – great stuff. After a few listens, you won’t be able to resist singing along with it!
The Winery Dogs – Elevate Music Video (Official)
Many of the songs on the record are in this mould – hard charging rock arrangements, driven by the hard hitting drums, with heaps of interesting interplay between the bass and guitar, with dirty blues licks and breakdowns thrown out with equal frequency as jazz fusion licks. Much of Richie’s influence is audible here – for example, The Other Side features a breakdown reminiscent a rocked up end section of Richie’s solo track Peace Sign, as well as featuring guitar lines that mimic the vocals.
In contrast, the ballad I’m No Angel brings some of what I love the most about Richie’s songwriting – it begins with a stripped back guitar arrangement, and soon leads into a soulful, heartfelt ballad, perhaps with a bit more of a rock edge than his past few solo albums have seen – influence of Messrs Sheehan and Portnoy, perhaps? In any case, it’s a great song, though the lyrics are ever so slightly kitschy, especially a particular line early on about getting your “mojo rising”… Even if it’s not Richie’s best, lyrically (and the man can write some great lyrics), you can forgive him a lot once you here the gruff earnestness in his voice.
The Winery Dogs – Desire Music Video (Official)
If you’re like me, and enjoy more ballad content, you will love Track 6, You Saved Me. A simple repeating line slowly builds momentum to another great hook laden chorus. Billy Sheehan and Mike Portnoy play it relatively simple in this one – not overplaying, and simply letting the honest melody carry the song along. Some beautiful guitar licks from Mr Kotzen here as well.
The Japanese release features an exclusive track The Criminal, but funnily enough it’s the next track, The Dying that features an Asian-sounding intro riff, which almost seems like a Jason Becker homage to me – really cool considering how close Richie and Jason are. Check out this cool video of Richie singing All Along The Watchtower at Jason’s 41st birthday:
Final Thoughts – All in all, after a few listens this album is really growing on me. Richie hasn’t released his furious guitar chops to this level in quite awhile, with everything from intense legato and fingertapping, to Vai and Becker-isms and just plain old soulful rock – it’s just a joy to listen to if you’re a guitar player.
As is the tradition with many RK albums, the final song is another emotive, heartfelt ballad, this time with a piano and organ underscoring the vocals. The track is called The Regret, and I can honestly say I have none for this record – a great start for what will hopefully be a lasting collaboration of musical greats. I can only look forward to their second album, if they decide to record one – it can only get better once they have a chance to get comfortable with each other as a musical unit. 4.0 out of 5 Fuck Yeahs!
Ed Lim is the chief blogger and founder of SixStringSamurai.co.nz – Gear talk for the similarly GAS-afflicted. GAS. No, it’s not something you get if you’ve eaten too many beans for dinner. Gear Acquisition Syndrome – if you’re like me, and can’t help buying cool guitars much like a magpie collects shiny bits of metal, then you’ve got it. Come hang out, and live vicariously through our reviews and soundclips. If you get sucked into the GAS monster even further, it’s not my fault…