Newly arrived in Bass Coast, Rob answered the call. We quickly gained an electrician, a sound and lighting expert and a good friend. It was only later that we found out that he was a very talented musician.
Rob's early years were spent at Moonee Ponds where on weekdays he and his mates crossed the Moonee Ponds creek to get to their Brunswick school. There was the choice of over or under the bridge, the rope swing crossing and of course the many hideouts along the way. A meandering route designed to delay one's arrival.
School days were followed by an electricians apprenticeship at Carlton United Brewery. Various jobs followed: slip-casting terracotta pots and garden ornaments at Essendon; doing late-night runs for Lemnos Poultry collecting battery hens past their use-by date from all over the state; and, much later, working as a printer at Koo Wee Rup until that business folded.
But they were just jobs. All through these years music was his passion and the path he faithfully followed. At the age of seven he knew he drove the household crazy sliding across the kitchen floor singing Dean Martin songs at full volume. At 15 he travelled into the city to buy a surfboard. Some far-sighted salesman sent him home with a guitar.
For the next 12 months he travelled to Brighton for classical guitar lessons then, like many a rock star before him, immediately went off the straight and narrow. His first group was theTombstone Hands, a five-piece underground band playing mostly on the St Kilda circuit, where they rubbed shoulders with the Hoodoo Gurus, Hunters and Collectors, Nick Cave and Birthday Party, groups that were on their way to world-wide recognition.
Rob wrote much of the material for the band. When they recorded a compilation, they had to list the band members’ names, song titles and credits. There were names like Eddy Liquorice, Fred Dugina, Feedback Jack, so plain “Rob Wilson” was greeted with hoots of derision. A fan of Afro-American blues guitarist Barbeque Bob Reading, he became Barbeque Bob, and the name has stuck.
The Tombstone Hands get the atmospherics right.
In the 1980s he formed a group called Barbeque Bob and The Cowboy Devil Babies. He was living at Devon Meadows, outside Cranbourne, playing interstate and often doing recording sessions in Melbourne until 3am. They were busy and demanding times. He got a name for sacking irresponsible musicians who regularly turned up late for gigs and recording sessions or not at all. “A lot to do with drugs and booze,” Rob says. “They got ahead of themselves, donning the fame that was never going to come to them, spending the spoils they hadn't yet earned.” They must have been a trying lot to so test the patient of such a quiet and gently spoken man.
In the early `90s, he put together a group composed of young Devon Meadows talent, with Sean Cooney as drummer. Rob called the group Race of Tan and wrote all the songs. Their theme, the evolution of man, was inspired by his reading of Lobsang Rampa, a Tibetan monk.
In 2007, he did the lighting and sound for another local production, In Their Own Words, a show of readings and songs that acknowledged the work of carers for people with dementia. The cast was invited to perform a segment of the show at the National Gallery of Victoria. Rob filled in for Grantville muso Richard Grist, performing Grist’s song Keep Dreaming On and it stays in his mind as one of his most enjoyable times as a performer.
In 2008 he was a member of the Bass Strait 12, a group of local and Melbourne musos who were part of the community campaign against the Wonthaggi desalination plant. Rob’s bluesy anthem Gippsland People was one of the highlights of the group’s two memorable concerts at the Kilcunda pub.
When I first saw Rob perform, he was playing double bass but he is more noted as a guitarist. I heard him once play Thundertown, one of his own compositions based on traditional Aboriginal music, on his favoured White Falcon Gretsch. I had not realised until that moment that you could make a guitar sound like a didgeridoo.
Something like steel string fever happens to Rob when he gets on the stage.
For those of us who know him, the wonder lies in watching this quiet, almost shy man transform into a polished performer who can belt out a blues number like the most bottle-hardened old Negro muso, then switch to a lyrical country ballad.
His joy in music is contagious. It is a privilege to watch him play his heart out and then perhaps to meet him the next day, in his sparky’s overalls, off to change someone’s fuses or rewire a house.