The term Supergroup has been defined as “a music group wherein the members have already found success individually or within other bands prior to the group’s formation”. The mere act of recalling supergroups we’ve heard is a lesson in celebrity name-dropping. Beyond the names and one’s inevitable reaction to the reading of the roster whenever these musical minglings come to pass, the real test is whether the material is strong enough to stand on its own. Sometimes, these tet-a-tets are timeless—Cream or Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young need no introductions. Sometimes they’re good: Consider Oysterhead, with Les Claypool of Primus, Trey Anastasio of Phish, Stewart Copeland of The Police, or Army of Anyone, featuring the DeLeo brothers of Stone Temple Pilots with DLR Band drummer Ray Luzier and Filter vocalist Richard Patrick. Other times, they’re irrevocably mediocre (Damnocracy comes to mind, a reality show-built outfit comprised of Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach, guitarist/outdoor enthusiast Ted Nugent, Anthrax shredder Scott Ian, Biohazard bassist Evan Seinfeld, and Jason Bonham, the son of that guy from Led Zeppelin) or simply unfathomable (Tinted Windows, anyone? Imagine Taylor Hanson, the middle child responsible for the baby-pop hit Mmm-Bop, showcasing his puberty-lowered crooning over the guitars of Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha and Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos…).
In any case, supergroups are a gamble. The self-titled debut from The Winery Dogs, a power trio featuring ex-Mr. Big bassist and studio musician Billy Sheehan, former Dream Theater stick man Mike Portnoy, and Poison alum Richie Kotzen on guitars and voice, seems to be a gamble that’s paid off. The thirteen tracks on this disc are a strong representation not only of what each of these artists brings to bear from individual experience but of the comfort and refinement with which some are capable of finding that alchemical formula for musical gold in collaboration and mining it without spoiling the source.
At its core a Blues-Rock album, “The Winery Dogs” succeeds in much the same way as another young supergroup, the Sammy Hagar/Michael Anthony/Joe Satriani/Chad Smith project Chickenfoot. What that band delivered, however, feels like a purer, stripped-down form with a little rock and funk fun thrown in. Kotzen and company do go there—’You Saved Me’ is a downright radio-friendly inspirational number reminiscent of late-nineties Eric Clapton and album closer ‘Regret’ is a molasses-tempoed piano-and-cigarette ballad that had me hearing something a bit Gavin DeGraw plus The Commodores—but The Winery Dogs also manage to incorporate a greater degree of the flash and technicality for which each of them is celebrated without stepping too far outside their intention. Drummer Portnoy does this particularly well here, dialing his Prog Rock prowess back considerably—to about a 7 from his usual 11—to serve the style, breaking out the hardest-core ear candy more for solo accompaniment and the odd fill. Billy Sheehan at times goes note-for-note with his guitarist and even manages a wild solo or two—most notably on the Hendrix-esque ‘Elevate’ and Rush-meets-Audioslave stomper ‘Not Hopeless’—proving yet again just how rare a bassist he is. Still, he’s always quick to find his way back to the rhythm and let Kotzen’s versatile-as-ever guitar work and smoky, complex, Cornell-by-way-of-Jonny-Lang vocal melodies do the majority of the walking/hopscotching.
Inventive but effortlessly true to form, “The Winery Dogs” was a thoroughly enjoyable and personal-sounding Blues romp with enough going on in-between the lines to whet the appetites of Pop-Rock, Fusion, Prog, or Instrumental enthusiasts while potentially engaging the ears of older-school Top 40 or even R&B listeners, all under the banner of the blues. Simply put, this album is one supergroup effort that does more justice than most to the ‘super’ part. Give it a go.