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An Exhibition of Excellence: The Music and Performance of Richie Kotzen

Photo by Meri Samur

“All of my other projects with other bands feel like great vacations, but there’s no place like home,” Richie Kotzen told me over the phone when we discussed the great diversity of his musical creativity. “Home is Richie Kotzen.”

Kotzen, the soulful singer of The Winery Dogs, guitar virtuoso, and prolific songwriter, looked and sounded perfectly at home on stage in St. Charles, Illinois on May 4. Leading a power trio with Dylan Wilson on bass and Mike Bennett on drums, he presented a demonstration in the acuity and elegance of excellence. To enjoy a Richie Kotzen live performance is to take an unmapped tour through the rich topography of his artistic spirit, but also the varied landscape of American music.

One fan who recently left a comment on the lyric video for Kotzen’s new song, “This is Life,” complimented the blazing guitar solo, gospel keyboards, and soul burning vocals that animate the composition as belonging to the “white Prince.” Comparisons of any artist to another, even one as brilliant as the late Prince, act as both elevation and reduction. When Kotzen is at home, occupying his own shoes and space as performer, there is nothing more “liberating, natural, or fun,” he explained before clarifying how influence operates: “When I’m playing a guitar solo, I’m not trying to sound like anything or anyone else. I am simply channeling what I’m feeling in my heart and my body through my fingers and instrument.”

On his dynamic new record, Salting Earth, and during his live concert, Kotzen is able to traverse territory familiar to fans of his influences, but also maintain the individuality of his own sound and style. His residence in the rare category of genre jumping with only the net of his own talent to protect his landing is the quality that most makes him similar to Prince.

The first three songs of the St. Charles show had the audience on its feet, but also sucking air and heaving attempting to catch their breath, as the artistically acrobatic Kotzen moved with rapid pace from the hard rock opener – the new record’s title track, “End of Earth” – to a funk rock rave up – “Socialite” – onto an extended keyboard jam with Kotzen sitting at the keys and singing in a falsetto shout reminiscent of classic Stax and Philly soul records. The latter performance, “Meds” – also from Salting Earth – began with a smoldering introduction that turned on a dime with a bass drum dance beat, and Kotzen transitioning from caught in the spirit testimony vocalization to gospel-pop keyboard solos. Wilsons’ funky bass line gave it an infectious groove, and allowed Kotzen to showcase the odd, but intoxicating nuptial he has performed to unite an exotic couple in musical matrimony.

Who but Kotzen would know that such a powerful combination would result from hard rock and sweet soul? “I grew up listening to what was happening outside of Philadelphia, in my region. I remember seeing Stevie Wonder at a venue in the round, and shortly after that George Benson was there. I was exposed to so much great music. Then, I got really into hard rock. So, there was this pendulum that would swing from Stevie Wonder to Black Sabbath. When I started writing, my bass lines and vocal phrasing came out R&B, and then I play guitar in a hard rock style. It really is a hybrid, because I love Sly and The Family Stone, I love Parliamment-Funkadelic, but I also love Iron Maiden too.”

“This is Life,” Kotzen explained during the interview, began as a halfway joke – an attempt to combine traditional R&B with thrash metal. As he listened to the demo, repeatedly, he found himself helplessly attracted to the soulful elements, and finally finished the lyrics when the death of Prince, one of his boyhood heroes, made him reflect on the most timeless of topics – the inescapable reality of mortality, and the finite nature of even the most impressive life. “This is life / This is something we are leaving…” Kotzen sings with a throat and diaphragm full of emotion.

The creative life, in certain indefinable ways, begins with experimentation and documentation. “I started making demos in my early teens,” Kotzen told me looking back on his long life in music, “We had a barn, and converted it into two rooms. I took over and made a studio. I would rehearse my band there, and record my music there. It was such a great time. I would stay there all night; sleep on the sofa. I didn’t even know what time it was on the weekends, because there were no windows. So, I would lose track of time and spend hours. My parents thought it was great too, because they always knew where I was. It was a fun time.”

Richie Kotzen plays nearly every instrument on the entire record, Salting Earth. His genesis as not only a songwriter, but a multi-instrumentalist emanates out of that barn, where he described often having to actually learn how to play what he heard in his head. In the wee hours, as Saturday night stretched into Sunday morning, all alone in his homemade demo production studio, if he imagined a keyboard part or a different drumbeat, he had no choice, or option, but to learn how to lay it down himself.

In his memoir, Bruce Springsteen acknowledges with pleasure, but also self-awareness of his life of leisure, that he has made a living out of “play, not work.” Richie Kotzen, despite all the money and the advancement of his ability and artistry, is still a man at play; engaged in activity not all that different from the nights in the barn (Similarly, this article that you are reading is not far apart from the writing I would do as a young boy at the inexpensive, white children’s desk in my room, meant for my mother’s eyes only).

When I asked Richie Kotzen how he determines the direction of a song in its infancy, given that he could turn it into a soul song, like his own “Remember,” or a hard rock song fit for a playlist with AC/DC and Aerosmith, like the Winery Dogs’ “Captain Love,” his answer had the simplicity and profundity of the playful artist at work: “The decisions make themselves. What I’m writing determines how I’m going to play and produce. I guess I’m lucky in that I can write a song how I can hear it. If I hear a hard rock riff, then it’s a rock song, but obviously it’s different, if I write a funky song on the bass one night. You don’t think about it. It is like thinking about, when you’re walking, what foot you are going to put in front of the other first.”

In his movement through music, Kotzen uses the simplest, but seemingly most reliable of criterion to separate the songs he produces and performs from those that collect digital dust: “I decide to release a song based on whether or not I like it.”

Albert Camus credited certain artists and critics with not only the craft of creativity, but what he called the “talent of appreciation.” The multi-decade musical career of Kotzen, along with his fantastic new record and his live performances, is not only an exhibition of profound skill and ability, but also the talent of appreciation. “Whether or not I like it” is a razor in the hands of Kotzen, who can easily cut out the mediocrity and mundane from the exhilarating and excellent.

It is because of his talent of appreciation, but also his beautifully wide range of vocal ability, songwriting prowess, and guitar wizardry, that he is one of the best, and paradoxically underappreciated, musicians in the United States.

“The title of the record, Salting Earth, means leaving something behind,” Kotzen reflected in our conversation, “If you create something, you can leave something behind that is positive long after you are gone.” He has already left quite a record of musical greatness, and does not appear ready to stop documenting his own creative spirit or the eclectic potential of American music any time soon.

In St. Charles, shortly after a moving acoustic performance of his masterful ballad, “High,” which had the crowd singing along loudly and enthusiastically, Kotzen and his band launched into his funky rock ‘n’ roll showstopper, “Help Me.” They stretched the song into ten minutes of unpredictable musical exploration. Unlike many guitarists, Kotzen does not follow a formula. He followed bluesy licks with hard rock solo progression, and then went into Stax-Volt territory. He sang the song in a deep growl of gravel in the throat, but also a smooth falsetto. After the band hit the final note, the enraptured and delirious audience cheered at high volume and at great length. When they finally settled down, Kotzen sat down at the keyboard and said, “That was a fun jam.”

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David Masciotra is the author of Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky), Metallica (a 33 1/3 book from Bloomsbury Publishers), and the forthcoming, Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Press).