The Bob Skon Trio
Bob Skon may be an Ann Arbor fixture now, but he began in Levittown New York. Unlike many musicians who start out with piano lessons, or the school band, Bob’s major influence came from his older brother. Bill was a bit older, and already doing the rock and roll guitar thing on the local circuit. So when music was first becoming important to Bob, guitar was the natural instrument of choice. However, singer songwriters were big in the mid ’70s, so Bob’s muse was a bit softer than brother Bill’s. It wasn’t the usual heavyweights like Jimmy Page and Pete Townsend that inspired. He wanted to emulate John Denver, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and especially James Taylor (with a little Steve Howe thrown in). Plus, as Bob says, “The chicks really dug it.”
Bob is primarily self-taught, but did take on a small amount of formal training. A few of those lessons were in Jazz, and can definitely be heard in the music today. Another important event was when Bill took him to see Andres Segovia. These factors explain to some extent why Bob’s approach has usually been different than his contemporaries. As he says, he was trying to play James Taylor songs the “right way.” Instead of just strumming, he endeavored to put chords on the notes.
Songwriting came early, as the first effort was penned at the age of 15. However, the real momentum coincided with adulthood, and the ability to play appropriate live venues. He and a friend formed an acoustic duo. They reworked appropriate covers (The Grateful Dead is highlighted here), and played the wine and cheese circuit. Along the way another guitar was added, and they dabbled in Crosby Stills and Nash style harmonies. Bob recalls a moment when they were at a place playing “Wish You Were Here,” and the manager turned on the mirror ball. With the effects swirling around it made them feel like “real rock stars.” This planted the seed for all out rock and roll. So toward that end, the Rock Ribs were formed.
The band toured the east Long Island rock scene for a couple of years, but problems eventually arose. As with most struggling artists, everyone had jobs, so organizing rehearsals was difficult. The obvious detriment is preparing for shows, but it also detracts from the creative process. Bob decided that trying to work in a group wasn’t conducive to his evolution, so he went solo. This would actually become a bit of a pattern.
After doing open mic nights and other small gigs for a while, it was time for a change. Steve Fredericks, who played with Bob in the wine and cheese days, was heading to Michigan in 1984 for a recording gig. Bob was convinced to tag along. This is when he first met Matt Steward. The chemistry between the two immediately took shape, and Matt became a permanent figure in the story. After a few of these projects, the idea of a band came up again. Bob says he went along with it because of Matt. So he moved to Ann Arbor, and the guys all rented a house together.
Once again a band seemed to be taking shape, but Steve bowed out to get married. Not deterred, Bob and Matt forged on with the group and entered the Detroit rock scene. They chose the name Guise, which later would be realized as a mistake. Unless you read it, it is easily misunderstood as Guys. Guise is a cool name, but Guys is just cheesy. Guise jammed in Southeastern Michigan for around three years, and then it was time to get serious. Everyone said “head west young men, there is gold (records) in California.” A tape (for you kids, that’s what we used to record on) was sent to someone in Los Angeles, and off they went in 1988.
Unfortunately, no one told them that the sound of the music industry was about to change. It was cusp of the ’80s and ’90s. Established alternative acts were now in the mainstream, and Grunge was about to break wide open. Mainstream singer / songwriter driven rock was definitely going out of fashion. So after five years, and with all that was against them, Bob again decided to go it alone. Matt returned to Michigan
Bob hit the open mic circuit again, looking for any stage time he could get. One time he found a place, and was hurriedly put on the list at the last minute. When he was brought up to the stage, it became evident that this was a comedy event. Unfortunately Bob had no jokes to tell, but performed anyway.
At this time, Bob didn’t have many originals, but would perform what he had from time to time. One night someone from the audience came to greet him after the set. One of Bob’s compositions had so moved the man that he was in tears. This was the inspiration Bob needed to carry on in the singer / songwriter motif, and in music itself. He was even getting requests for originals. Bob rolls his eyes when commenting about how often he was asked to write songs for weddings. Even with all this encouragement, he was still concentrating more on his day job.
If you listen to the music, you can hear much of the inspiration coming from the ups and downs of relationships. The romance of the time was reaching critical mass. The woman in his life wanted to move back to Ann Arbor. Bob didn’t feel ready to leave L.A., and she went without him. The second thoughts came after a while, and Bob then decided he couldn’t live without her. So he also returned to Ann Arbor. Unfortunately the relationship didn’t last, but the love for Ann Arbor began to take its hold. Well, Ann Arbor is a great place to be, and Bob found a good job, so home it became.
He did the open mic thing again, and even got into some dubious booking deals. The best part was reconnecting with Matt. Bob may write the songs, but he cites Matt’s input as being integral to quality of the finished product. The two started to play in informal settings, and began work on a group of songs that would become “Second Time Around.”
A friend was building a recording studio in Cleveland, and enlisted Bob for his technical expertise. Recording time was offered in trade. Matt was not left out. He would listen to tapes, and come up with more ideas. Then the suggestion was made to cut some tracks with a band. More musicians and a guest vocalist were brought in. The result was the first full-fledged album, and in 2005 “Second Time Around” was released.
Bob and Matt had been comfortable as a duo, and Bob is obviously not opposed to performing as a solo. However, with the rich sound on the album, they needed more to promote it live. Mutual friend Trent Collier was brought in to play bass, and the Bob Skon Trio was born.
Now a bass doesn’t take up that much room on a stage, but a full drum kit does. The venues that are best for this kind of music usually don’t offer much space for the performers. Matt came up with a brilliant solution with his discovery of the cajon. It is basically a box that the percussionist sits on and plays. The amazing part is the dynamic range of sounds that it can create. The words of Bob’s father ring in his head when he said, “You know, you guys need a gimmick.” Well, there it is. At almost every show someone approaches Matt and says, “What the heck is that thing you’re playing?”
Bob and Matt have done appearances as a duo, and Bob may also venture out on his own, but the trio is where the emphasis is. The desire to turn the focus more to the group was reinforced when the name was changed in to Bob Skon and the Refreshments in 2011. This however was not meant to be as they discovered another band (famous for the “King of the Hill” theme) already had the name. It is a familiar rock and roll story and hasn’t kept The Bob Skon Trio from becoming Ann Arbor mainstays. Bob still writes, and will be heard saying, “This one will be on the new album.” This inevitable response is, “when?” We can only hope soon.