Red Ribbon Week

Verity Middle School 7th grade student Austin Cross jams on gutair during Red Ribbon Week concert and motivational speech Tuesday.

Guitarist and bandleader Phil Accardi hooked his audience when he walked out on stage and picked out the intro to “Sweet Home Alabama.”

He reeled them in with Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”

By the time he launched into a Led Zeppelin number, Accardi owned them, every student at George M. Verity Middle School.

Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Accardi could have led the children out of the school auditorium and into the streets, if he’d wanted to. Such is the power of rock n’ roll.

Luckily, his intentions were more benign. Accardi tours the eastern United States with his band, Chalice, but arenas and concert halls aren’t his typical venues. Instead, the band sets up in dimly lit school auditoriums and plays for schoolchildren.

Tuesday he was at Verity for the kickoff of the school’s Red Ribbon Week observances.

Accardi’s message is more than music, however. A tragedy in his own life has led him on a path unlikely to result in limos and Rolling Stone covers: when the music stops and the rest of the band leaves the stage, Accardi tells the story of a childhood friend addled by dope and killed in a motorcycle accident.

So don’t do drugs; don’t drink alcohol, he exhorts his young listeners. It’s a message they’ve heard a hundred times, from parents, teachers, pastors, maybe even other motivational speakers.

But none of them had streaky shoulder-length hair, an electric guitar and an amplifier cranked all the way up.

“It’s a little different than the usual school assembly because they’re getting the message from rock musicians instead of the usual,” Accardi said.

Brought up on Long Island in New York, Accardi played music with his friend, Jim, from elementary school days until high school. His friend veered away from music and into drugs to gain access to the popular teens and ended up dead.

Faced with the same peer pressure, Accardi stuck with music, playing mostly in nightclubs, until he reached a spiritual crossroads, he said. The nightly parade of heavy drinkers and carousers he encountered turned him off. “I wanted to do something that would help people,” he said.

As a musician, Accardi has an immediate advantage with children because music is a language they listen to and understand.

It helps that he has a compelling and true story to go with it.

“He’s inspirational and he’s a pretty good leader,” said Austin Cross, a 13-year-old seventh-grader.

“He has a really, really good story,” said Angela Martin, also 13 and in the seventh grade. “People who would think about using drugs wouldn’t want to die like that.”

Before the band played, the children watched a short film produced by Accardi that portrayed an adolescent’s descent into drugs and eventual death.

The technique — movie, music and message — really connected with the children, said Anna Rogers, a teacher at Verity.

While the music was loud, the students themselves were relatively quiet at first, she noticed. A smattering of polite applause met the band’s first appearance on stage. But Accardi loosened the children up and gained their trust when he encouraged them to shout and clap and jump out of their seats. “First he gained their trust and then he sent the message,” Rogers said.

Accardi said sometimes after his shows children will share their own stories and that some of them are tragic. “I get confessions right then and there,” he said. Other children will swear not to touch dope.

Red Ribbon Week is a nationally observed grass-roots drug awareness campaign effort that started in the 1980s.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or at (606) 326-2652.

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