Chemistry 101 is the debut album by John January and Linda Berry, two local blues-rock veterans whose past work has mostly been as members of groups like little monsters and Michele Lundeen and Blue Streak (January) and Smokin Jr.’s band (Berry). The two ran into one another a few years ago at one of Berry’s gigs and hit it off; a while later they put together a musical collaboration. The new album is the end result, blues rock with the emphasis on blues, a project that gives guitarist/singer January and vocalist Berry plenty of opportunities to flash their oats, backed by a full band with horns, cutting no corners playing a dozen great covers. It clicks enough to have already grabbed a nomination for Best Blues album at this year’s San Diego Music Awards, which takes place on March 19 at the House of Blues.
Many of the tunes covered are lesser known—a plus over a batch of songs that tend to get done to death. “I Can’t Stop It” opens, with the principals trading off vocals and doing call and response as they do on many of the other tunes. With a brisk beat and smooth horns, January jumps in with a hot lead guitar break right on cue. Berry is in charge on “Geechee Woman” as she scats back and forth with January’s slide licks, then tells her evil man off. It is a rocking highlight and helps set the tone for a disc that never lets up.
There are no weak tracks or filler here, and “Looking This World Over” grabs the ear for a combo of Berry’s sassy Maria Muldaur-style vocal over the top of nice, lyrical acoustic blues playing by January. Another nifty change of pace is a downshifted treatment of Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” which is played acoustic with harp fills, and sung mostly in harmonies.
“Say Baby Say” is a grinding boogie that Berry takes charge of, dressed up with a hot organ solo by Irv Goldstein and another blazing break by January, who in solo spots seems like a high-octane take on Duke Robillard. A version of “I Will Forever Sing the Blues” is given a funk treatment and sharp vocal turn by January, before he works the upper end of the register for more guitar magic.
Another definite highlight is “Sensitive Kind,” a slow J.J. Cale ballad that becomes a reverent shuffle enhanced by the singing tone of January’s slide. “Your Funeral and My Trial” is familiar to most guitar and harp enthusiasts, and January lays down a blistering reading that benefits from Chuck Arcilla’s sax solo. The album wraps with yet another treat, Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot,” cranked up to jump blues pace and given a swing injection-it is a great way to end a good time album of hot blues.
Chemistry 101 is an appropriate title for this album, since the singers and players’ vibe is always positive, drawing from the strong blues material for a great listen.