The venue was The Gas Monkey Live! theater, which I had never been to before. The venue itself was a rather pleasant surprise, hidden within a slightly-less-developed part of the metroplex near Dallas Lovefield Airport. Decorated with 19th Century throwback wall paper amid gothic mirrors and taxidermied hunting trophies, the theater stretches out from the main stage. It's lined with two elevated VIP areas for fans who prefer to sit during shows, and has several bars situated throughout the theater to serve drinks without creating long lines. The stage itself is elevated maybe 4 or 5 feet above the audience and is bookended with large screens, which receive a constant feed from live cameramen filming the show. The stage is set up with a rather elaborate lighting system, and a projector screen in the rear, giving the venue a sort of "big arena" feel, despite the intimate layout.
As I was waiting in line to enter the venue, I stuck up a conversation with a fellow fan. He said he was there to see the opening act, Kicking Harold, and that he'd actually never heard of the Winery Dogs before. I admitted that I'd never seen Kicking Harold before, and we both were a little taken aback by each other, and laughed. But on his passionate description of the band, I realized I had something to really look forward to in the opening act - which is a refreshing change from many other shows of this side, in which a well-connected local band ends up getting the opening slot, only to give a local-quality performance.
And Kicking Harold did not disappoint! From the opening chords, the band immediately took me back to the mid-90s music scene, when rock music was still witty, groovy, hard-hitting, melodic, and had youth appeal. In fact, after a couple of songs, I started to realize just how far pop rock has fallen in the last 20 years; that may be a topic for another blog post, but for the time being, it should serve as a testament to Kicking Harold's set. By way of comparison, Kicking Harold hold stylistic similarities to, say, Treble Charger or Eve 6. The overall vibe is decidedly punk/alternative rock, but it's delivered with sleek hard rock sensibilities. Add9 chords abound, and all three instruments deliver the goods with a respectable level of aggression. By the third song in, Kicking Harold had won the crowd over, which is fairly remarkable, considering that most Winery Dogs fans were there to see three of the "shreddiest" musicians in the business. And Kicking Harold, while awesome, is not much of a shredder's band. That, however, didn't stop them from closing their set with a genuinely badass Rush medley. By the time they left the stage, the audience wasn't just warmed up, we were on fire.
Finally, it was time for the Winery Dogs themselves. Just before they took the stage, I noted a few interesting things about their setup.
First, Richie Kotzen was playing two of his signature Cornford half stacks, which surprised me since I was under the impression that he was touring with Marshalls. Boutique Cornford amplifiers, especially when paired with a Telecaster, deliver an incredibly rich guitar tone that is nonetheless a little on the low-gain side of the spectrum (especially by modern standards). The sound was stunning, and helped me understand just how much of a blues player Kotzen can be when he wants to be.
Second, Mike Portnoy's drum set seems to have grown substantially since the previous Winery Dogs tours. This fact ought to appeal to the Portnoy fans in the audience, because he is really using the full drumkit in these songs.
Finally, I had known already that Billy Sheehan ran a two-amplifier setup to get his bass tone, but I hadn't realized what a fairly complicated setup that is. Last night, he was playing two bass amps with, I believe, five speaker cabinets and a rack full of gear.
The band kicked things off with "Oblivion," and "Captain Love," the first two songs from the new album. That set the stage for a night of predominantly new music, which was great news for me, since I was anxious to hear how the new songs translated in a live context. The verdict on that question, by the way, is "resoundingly well." At one point, Kotzen paused to ask whether anyone in the crowd had any "personal favorites" from the new record. "Devil You Know!" someone shouted, to which Kotzen replied, "We're not ready for that one yet. Next time around, I promise."
I was pleased that the band even played "Think It Over" and "Regret," which stand out for being two electric piano songs on an otherwise guitar-driven set. The latter was brought out during the encore, and the rendition was, in a word, phenomenal. Kotzen began on the electric piano, and as the song reached its final crescendo, he moved over to electric guitar for a stunningly emotional solo and a big finish.
Instrumentally, the band was at the top of their game. Several extended solo sections allowed each player to show the audience what they do best. Mike Portnoy's drum solo, in particular, stood out for its wit and charm. I won't spoil the "surprise" feature to that drum solo (although I'm sure it's been revealed already by fan videos on YouTube), but suffice it to say it was both a big change from Portnoy's Dream Theater days, and a charmingly modern take on the drum solo.
Being the guitar player that I am, I was anxious to get a close look at some of Richie Kotzen's more challenging licks in hopes of figuring out "how the heck does he do that?" Having gotten about as close a look as I'll ever get, I can faithfully report: I still have no idea. His playing remains as fresh and innovative as ever.
The Winery Dogs have been getting some amazing press about their live show, and having finally seen them up-close-and-personal myself, I'm glad I got to find out what all the fuss is about. The reports are not exaggerated. They put on an excellent show, and in particular I think it's interesting to see this particular snapshot of the band as it exists today. They've clearly started to find what it is that sets them apart as a group of live performers, and I imagine their live show will continue to grow and develop by the end of this tour and into the next.
There are still plenty of upcoming dates, so my advice is to hunt down some tickets to the show nearest you. It is well worth it.