Bread & Roses Presents Volunteer Host Bob Rose had the following to say after a recent show at the Phillips Academy in Oakland with nationally touring musician James Nash, a co-founder of The Waybacks. "He was off the charts. He is hands-down, the best representative of Bread & Roses and our ideals that I have witnessed. Not only is he an amazingly talented guitarist and singer, he could not have been more patient, friendly or interactive... A computer science graduate from Stanford, James not only provided sensational music, he also came to the school with a powerful message of hope and courage, and clearly inspired many of the students to use music as a positive way to communicate and express their feelings. If ever there was a performer who should get a thank-you from us, it is James Nash!"
Nash, a renowned guitarist and teacher, started his program with an opening instrumental that he recently wrote. His remarkable string-bending and intricate performance immediately caught the attention of the isolated teens at this alternative school for diverse youth in the East Bay.
He then took the guitar off his shoulder and started a conversation. “I’ve had some kind of virus lately and I couldn’t even talk a couple days ago, so if I sing and don’t hit all the notes you’ll know why. Isn’t it funny how people can be? When I couldn’t talk or barely whisper, strangers would come up to be and start talking really loud or really slow like there was something wrong with me. They had no idea who I was or what I was thinking. But today, I’m going to do my best. That’s what we all should do, right?”
Message delivered. He continued:
“I remember when I was a kid and the first time I played in front of people at school. My dad had a guitar and he let me use it. I was really nervous and kids were laughing and staring at me in the classroom. It took a lot of courage to play by myself. And it worked out because I took the chance. It’s good to have courage, no matter what people say or think. When I’m feeling bad, I play my guitar alone and the music makes me feel better. You should try it too.”
After a very un-Wonder-like, yet wonderful version of the song Superstition, Nash paused while the students gave him a surprisingly loud ovation for his almost-magical guitar licks.
He then asked a show of hands of those who played a musical instrument. About one quarter of the audience signaled they did. “That’s great! Keep playing and practicing!”
Next up, James gave them a cheerful dose of Bob Marley’s classic, Everything is Going to be Alright. He then spoke about the rhythm of reggae music, and before long had the students clapping on the second and fourth count.
“Anybody here play guitar?” he asked. An African American young lady named Amari raised her hand and he summoned her to the front. He handed her an electric guitar and began to teach her a few chords. Before long, she was getting the hang of it, and James accompanied with his guitar to her delight. When they were finished with the exercise, James high-fived her and the crowd roared. Clearly he was connected with everybody in the room.
He then offered the first stanza of the Beatles’ Hey Jude, before stopping to ask them who was Jude and what was the song really about. Surprisingly, a young man in the audience yelled, “Julian!,” correctly referring to Julian Lennon, John’s son. “You’re right! And the song was written by Paul McCartney because Julian’s father and mother were getting a divorce. We have family problems some time, don’t we? We just have to do our best and over time, things usually get better.”
At that point, James asked the crowd if anybody wanted to come up and sing. Amari, never bashful, was the first to join him. She told James she wanted to sing Adele’s Hello. Nash scrunched his face and told her he didn’t know how to play that song, but no need to despair.
“Music is like a language. The more you practice it, the better you are picking things up.” He asked if anybody had a cell phone he could borrow, so he could find the song online. Almost comically, five teens ran to the stage with their phones. He borrowed one of them and held it up against the microphone while he played the song online. Within seconds, he had digested the notes and did a splendid replication as Amira sang her heart out. And she wasn’t half bad!
Afterwards, James good-naturedly said, “How can I sing another song and follow that. She has such a nice voice, and my voice right now makes me sound like a frog!” Everybody giggled.
He then thanked the audience for their curiosity and participation, and again encouraged them to give music and singing a try so “you can get to know the person inside and express your feelings.”
For his last song, he told them it would be something they usually hear before or during a sporting event to get people fired up! And with that, he belted out Queen’s old standard, We Will Rock You.
Before leaving the stage, he left one last message. “You know, I loved being here today. I love teaching kids and I also coach sports like the Junior Giants and Little League. And you know what I’ve found? Kids can do anything. And you know why? Because kids are brave. Raise your hand if you’re brave!”
It seemed every arm shot up in the air.
Now the post-script: Believe it or not, James was far from finished. As the basement emptied, about five or six teens walked up to Nash. First Amira, with her two best friends (one black, one white), wanted to share a song with him. James was so encouraging as they harmonized another Adele tune, while he did his best to accompany them on guitar.
Then Gibson, a quiet young man probably around 16 years old, approached James. I recognized him from a previous show at Phillips Academy when he had told me he played guitar and wrote some songs. James gave him the spare electric guitar and Gibson started playing some rusty versions of songs by Led Zeppelin and The Animals. “With a name like Gibson, you should be a guitarist!” joked Nash.
I was taken aback by how genuinely interested and encouraging James was with Gibson and the other students—this after already being at the school for an hour-and-a-half.
“You have the talent to be really good. You need to promise me you’ll practice at least five minutes every day. That’s what I still do, even when I’m on the road, travelling and I get to a hotel completely exhausted at three in the morning. I still find five minutes to practice! You can do it.”
He let Gibson go on playing. Finally, he knew it was time to quit. As he put down the guitar, he turned to James.
“I promise to practice at least five minutes a day.”
James could not have been more enthusiastic.
“That’s awesome! That’s what I’m talking about!,” Nash shouted. And then, instinctively, he went over to Gibson and they embraced in a big league hug.
In a testimonial on Facebook after the event, James said; "Such an honor to make some new friends in Alameda today at The Phillips Academy. We played guitar, traded songs, and talked about music and life and how to be brave in a scary world...The kids I met today are facing some tough challenges, but they are talented and smart and ambitious. Look out, world--these kids are gonna rock it. Thanks to Bread & Roses Presents for introducing me to such inspiring young people."
If ever Bread & Roses Presents wanted to clearly explain why it does what it does, look no further than a magical afternoon in Alameda when James Nash shared his gift with the kids. Yes, music was one gift. But the real gift was simply him caring enough to share a couple hours with the students of Phillips Academy.