CD REVIEWS – JOHN JANUARY & LINDA BERRY: Chemistry 101

CD REVIEWS – JOHN JANUARY & LINDA BERRY: Chemistry 101

John January & Linda Berry - Chemistry 101

Chemistry 101

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.

Local Musician

Local Musician

For San Diego native John January MacDonald, music has always been a big part of his life. “My family made music important in our home,” recalled John. “Show tunes, jazz and classical music were played on the stereo by my dad all at high volume on the weekends.” As a hobby, John’s father sang barbershop quartet and his mother played the accordion and guitar. But it was John’s brother, Joe, an avid collector of rock, jazz, and soul music, who really served as his inspiration. “(My brother) fed my mind with the greater universe of musical expression,” shared John. “It only was matter of time before Clapton, Hendrix, and Chicago with Terry Kath became favorites of mine.”

As a result, John took an interest in the guitar and soon started playing under the guidance of his teacher, Dave Hargrove. “Dave set my path to learning and teaching in motion when he asked me ‘What do you want to learn?’” remembered John, who now is a guitar teacher himself. “This philosophy of nurturing the student’s musical ambitions became my own teaching mantra, and has greatly contributed to keeping my students engaged in the guitar from a young age all the way to college.”

John January and Linda Berry Have Chemistry

John January and Linda Berry Have Chemistry

By T.E. Mattox

Chemistry by its very definition is the spontaneous reaction of two people to each other, especially that sense of mutual attraction and understanding. This month John January and Linda Berry release their new project, Chemistry 101 and together they explore a range and depth of musical styles on both organic and physical levels. As a joint labor of love, January says Chemistry 101 is pretty straight-forward. “We recorded an old-school idea of an album. It’s music from a couple of kids who grew up in the 70s, and who adored their records. We’ve chosen and re-fashioned some juicy stuff, like Joe Liggins, Memphis Minnie, Flash Terry, Sonny Boy Williamson II and even an old Boz Scaggs tune.”

As fate would have it, Linda and John got to know each other exactly where you’d expect. “We met on stage.” John says. “At Larry’s Beach Club in Oceanside about 4 years ago when I was asked by Pearl West to guest with Linda’s band, Smoking Jr. The chemistry between us was immediate and palpable… but the timing was not right.”

Both January and Berry were experiencing “the final stages of ending marriages.” And as if that wasn’t enough, John adds, “My time with my band, little monsters and the four years as Michele Lundeen’s guitarist was also winding down. A year later, Linda and I were ready to begin pursuing ‘everything’ together.”

The collaboration began from the ground up. “Musically,” John says. “We began by just sitting and playing, becoming excited about the songs and our chemistry. We quickly built up what is now a repertoire of over 100 songs, mostly in the Blues realm, and these songs speak to our relationship and also our individual stories.”

Sounds extremely personal, tell us about the composition and makeup of the album? “There are 12 songs.” John says. “Mostly lesser-known, blues-based covers that Linda and I have chosen. Songs that we developed through live performances and that tell a little of our story in one fashion or another.”

Can you give us an example? “For instance, ‘If I Didn’t Know Better’ was a kind of homework assignment from Linda to me, after our first date. Suffice to say, on the second date we were singing the song in harmony together, and when we perform that song on stage now it still evokes the daring and tantalizing moment of a first encounter.”

Let’s talk a little about putting the album together? “Chemistry 101 was primarily recorded at Thunderbird Studios in Oceanside.” John says. “…and also at the Scott Exum Studio’s in Escondido. 95% of what you hear on this recording… are first takes, including the vocals and guitar solos. I mixed the album back in my home studio, the Atom Shop. Saxophonist Chuck Arcilla contributes all over the album, soloing and sometimes overdubbing himself as a horn section. Sadly, during the course of album’s evolution, we lost two of our dear friends who performed on the album, the beloved bassist Dave Talbott who deserves a co-producers credit for the guidance and great ideas he brought to the songs, and drummer Cliff Souligny, who died from a sudden brain tumor earlier this year.”

I can’t imagine how you continue to work on a project after losing two of its primary contributors? “At times it was difficult for me to finish the mixing.” John says the hardest part was “just listening to my friends on the tracks, performing, singing, and talking between takes. Within three months we lost Dave, Cliff and another member of our organization, back-up bassist, Steve Welles. The losses were a three-way sucker punch for Linda and me, and they flattened us just as we felt we were getting into our stride. So, it was important to pick ourselves up, and finish this project, knowing that all three of those talented gentlemen were firm proponents of the music and chemistry that Linda and I had developed. To finish off the album, we got some great help from even more musicians, like Sonny Derrin on harmonica, Irv Goldstein on organ and Pete Bogle on drums.”

After all the challenges surrounding this project, it must feel good to have it finished? “We’re very excited. This is a blues album and it is a rollicking, groovy, funky, sexy project… we even goof around a little. But, make no mistake.” John says. “We made sure that we are kicking some ass on there.”

Check out Chemistry 101, the latest blues from John January and Linda Berry. Available this month…. or if you’re so inclined you can get your copy at the CD Release Party, June 11, 2017 at Tango Del Rey 3567 Del Ray St. San Diego, CA 92109.

San Diego Troubadour Review of Chemistry 101

San Diego Troubadour Review of Chemistry 101

12 tracks from blues duo John January and Linda Berry, with full band backing, all choice covers. Consisting of deep gems, this is a winner. You can tell the musicians involved are having a good time – it’s in the grooves.

First off, there is great production from Thomas Yearsley and Scott Exum, highlighting both Berry’s commanding vocals and January’s excellent guitar work, on electric and acoustic guitars, depending on the tune. Secondly, while this is certainly a blues album, that tag is actually a little limiting as it encompasses many shades of blue within its dozen tracks.

Major points as well for covering two songs by San Diego music icons, Jimmy Liggins 1947 jump blues stomper “I Can’t Stop It,” and J.J. Cale’s breezy 1979 shuffle, “Sensitive Kind,” the latter highlighted by sterling slide work from January. Also good is a swampy harmony and harmonica laden take on Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” adding a touch of pop to the proceedings, coming across like something from country radio circa 1968. The variety of sounds and settings on the album mixed with the great song selection, which also includes tunes from the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson and Robert Johnson, make this a solid listen. Top shelf blues.