Seven years ago, two New York transplants started a ’50s- and ’60s-themed dance party in East Nashville because they wanted to. There was no business plan in place when the two musicians and record collectors, Reno Bo and Jacob Jones, started spinning doo-wop and rock & roll at The 5 Spot every Monday night.
“We just started doing it for fun, which is the greatest reason to do anything,” Bo says of the highly successful shindig they call “Keep On Movin’.” From Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and “Little Queenie” to “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong, or “The Clapping Song,” by Shirley Ellis, Bo can rattle off any number of songs that get people moving — that get things all “sweaty and gritty,” he adds, aptly rephrasing lyrics from “Summer in the City.” “It’s fun as hell.”
Electric Western, the name Bo and Jones gave their party-throwing machine, evolved into an umbrella for all of their creative pursuits and now includes an independent record label, which recently released Bo’s full-length record, Lessons From a Shooting Star. The album’s 10 songs are a testament to Electric Western’s motto: Keep Being Awesome.
After logging thousands of hours touring the U.S., U.K., and parts of Europe playing bass for Albert Hammond Jr. (The Strokes), The Mooney Suzuki, and Caitlin Rose, Bo holed up in his Germantown apartment — his “laboratory by night,” as he calls it — to create a smartly sequenced collection of songs that fall naturally into a pop-influenced Side A and more introspective and sonically indulgent Side B. On his first record since 2010, Bo sings about the things rock songs are supposed to be about: traveling and touring; choosing one’s own roads; girls; and heartbreak. All in all, he gives us something familiar even on the first listen, an experience akin to remembering someone you’ve never met before and digging them right away.
Bo says his time spent supporting other artists was fun and important, as it stretched his playing and thinking — especially touring with Hammond, who was “meticulous in a good way. His parts are really figured out,” he explains. “I played his music exactly as he’d recorded it in
But at a certain point, he wanted to be Reno Bo, the artist, again. “I was feeling like, ‘God, maybe I should make my own record and not necessarily just play bass for somebody,’ ” he recalls.
So for a few years, he chipped away at songs while on the road, and between legs of the many tours, snuck back to Nashville to build the album an instrument and a track at a time. There’s a reciprocal relationship between touring and recording that seems to energize the New York native, who lived in Poughkeepsie as a kid and Brooklyn as an adult and has called Nashville home since 2008.
Since leaving New York, Bo’s work ethic hasn’t changed even though his rent has. There was a moment some years back when he could have renewed the lease on his New York apartment, which he shared with roommates, but he decided against it. “I thought I could get out of town and open a new chapter in my life.”
It was with visions of music havens like the Brill Building in New York or a “Motown-type situation,” places where “writers worked together and churned out music,” that propelled him to Nashville where he was able to rent an apartment and a warehouse where he could make music.
Now that the record’s been made, he’s ready to loop back around. “Now I have to go on tour — it’s all cycles,” he says of a pattern familiar to so many Nashville musicians — one of returning from the road to dig into new music in the studio and then being hungry to head back out and tour.
While Bo would love a consistent band, he anticipates the usual roving cast of available Nashville musicians to accompany him this fall and winter. He’s set dates in Los Angeles and New York and plans to hit a number of the cities within a van’s ride from Nashville. “You’re so close to so much of the country here,” he says. “Louisville, Atlanta, Birmingham. It’s easy to do the little runs.” He points out that if you live, say, in Austin, “you’ve got to spend an entire day getting out of Texas to go to another state.”
You can hear the road in the songs, both in terms of one of the major themes woven throughout the record — one of pushing on, pulling through life’s many turns and curves, getting lost and wondering what it is to be found — and also, the album itself sounds like a band on the road playing together on a stage even though the songs were built a single track at a time in Bo’s apartment. “Nothing on the album’s live,” he says. Instead, he played all the instruments himself. “I’d record drums first, then get the amps cranked up so it was like I was basically playing a show in my home studio.”
It’s a Wednesday night at the Mercy Lounge, and Bo is playing one of his first live shows since the release of Lessons From a Shooting Star, backed by a band of local musicians. The mic is just above his head and angled down at his mouth. He thanks the crowd and even knows the bartender’s name. Within the first few minutes of the set, it’s apparent that Bo and his band are there to have fun, his music wholly embraced by his audience. Even the sound guy is nodding to the beat of the music.
As the show progresses, Bo introduces each band member during their turn in the spotlight, such as when Jeremy Fetzer, the guitar player borrowed from the local band Steelism, is about to charge into a solo.
The set at Mercy Lounge ends with “Somewhere There’s Something,” a song whose lyrics have only three words in the entire four-minutes of guitar swells and loops, a field recording of chirping birds, and a bed of echoed vocals. When he first sang the melody for “Somewhere There’s Something” into his iPhone, Bo recalls thinking, “These aren’t the lyrics.” But over time, after layering the guitars, bass, and drums together in his laboratory, something happened. “It felt right for me,” he says of the song that started off as a search and stayed that way.
After the finale, Bo tells the crowd, “Get home safe.” But one could argue that on that cool August night, in the warm afterglow of Bo’s performance, they were already home.