At the Crossroads

David was becoming increasingly tense. He knew the reasons, but he couldn’t explain them to his fellow band members. Well, not to most of them. Maybe Julie Diamond, the vocalist, would understand. She was perceptive and had picked up on the clues that he’d unintentionally dropped during the three-year existence of The Thieving Magpies, both at their rehearsal sessions and when winding down after performances in folk clubs and at festivals across the South-West. Julie’s proper job was as a counsellor at Bath University, and she was good at what she did. She’d noticed David’s general unhappiness early in the band’s career and she’d kept prodding him with reminders of her counselling expertise until he’d finally given way and told her of his gender pressures. His job as a frontline social worker gave him little chance to escape the stress.
The Thieving Magpies were an eclectic bunch, describing themselves as a loose-knit folk/jazz/blues combo. Julie sang and played fiddle. George Ingleborough, a plumber from one of the north Somerset villages, was their guitarist, with a style that could be described, at best, as workmanlike. Susan Gulliver, George’s partner both in their relationship and in their plumbing business, played keyboards and sang competent backing vocals. Greg Mailer, a Bath-based car mechanic, was on drums and Stu Penance, the band leader and an accountant, played bass. That left David himself, a skilled flautist and an electrifying alto sax player. He’d been seriously compared to the late Johnny Almond, something that pleased him no end, but he doubted that he was anywhere near that good. And in recent performances he felt that he’d dropped a notch in the quality of his key solos. This worried him, although the rest of the band hadn’t really noticed. Neither had the fans, seemingly. They still turned up at the pubs, clubs and festivals, were loyal in their applause for the main part of the performance, and still went wild during the final part of the band’s set.
Most of the material the band played was original, penned mainly by Stu, Julie and Dave, songs that followed the tradition of British folk-rock. But for the final part of their performance the band would switch direction and play a forty-minute set of straight blues covers (hence their name) in which most of the increasingly vibrant solos were taken by Dave on his alto sax, recreating runs that had originally been made on guitars. They always finished with a high-speed rendition of Sitting on Top of the World, adopted after Julie had seen Jacqui Dankworth perform it as an encore at one of her jazz concerts. Julie lowered her voice an octave to a sultry growl and Dave played his sax solo like there was no tomorrow. The crowd invariably went crazy. That had been the case until the last six gigs. Dave knew that his heart wasn’t in it any more, just as it was missing from other parts of his life. He also knew what he had to do to recreate the magic he used to feel when performing. It was decision time, and only Julie would understand. He wouldn’t consult the others. They’d just ridicule him given half a chance, maybe even give him the sack. He’d have to take them by surprise, forcing the issue.
The most important gig of the summer, a large folk festival in Gloucester, was fast approaching. Dave had several secret meetings with Julie, and they discussed the issue at length, finally coming up with a workable plan. The last night of the festival came around and the host announced The Thieving Magpies as the final act to a loud round of applause. The other four members of the band hurried onto the stage, plugged in their instruments and each played a few notes to check they were in tune. They suddenly realised they were two members short.
‘Where’s Jules and Davy boy?’ asked Stu, looking around him at the two vacant positions. He suddenly realised that he hadn’t seen Dave, their star player, for the last hour. He looked across at George, panic on his face. Just then Julie appeared at the side of the stage, dressed in a silver sequin trouser suit, followed by a tall, dark-haired woman in a black, red and white maxidress.
Julie walked to the microphone picked up her violin and made her usual introduction. ‘Good evening, everyone. We are the Thieving Magpies and we plan to steal your minds for the next couple of hours.’
Stu continued to gawp as the brunette walked to Dave’s usual spot, picked up an alto sax and fixed it to the neckband she wore. What was going on?
The crowd seemed equally confused, with people pointing at the woman who’d unexpectedly appeared on stage instead of their hero, but Julie gave them no time to create a fuss. She tapped her fiddle three times with the bow and broke into the opening line of their first song. The rest of the band joined in, and they were off. The sax player certainly knew the song, Stu had to give her that. Her swaying was in perfect time with the rhythm. He sidled over to Julie as George started his solo and tried to appear nonchalant as he spoke.
‘What the hell’s going on? Where’s Davy?’
She smiled at him. ‘Don’t worry, Stu. Everything will be fine. Just relax and enjoy it.’
Stu cast a worried look across the stage. George’s solo was coming to an end and Davy would normally take over at this point for a complex sax break. He tried to mouth to George that he should keep going but it was too late. The woman stepped forward and started her run on the keys. And it was pure magic. It was just as if Davy was playing, but somehow lighter and more soulful. George looked at the front rows of the crowd, faces that looked as confused as he felt. But then the expressions changed; they relaxed and listened to the sparkling sound created by the new saxophonist. Stu stepped back into his usual position in front of the drums. Maybe Julie was right. Maybe he should just relax and enjoy the performance. The sax solo ended to spontaneous applause, and Julie started singing again.
Three numbers passed. The woman occasionally took a swig of water from a bottle at her feet, just like Davy did. Stu walked across after two more numbers and asked if she was okay.
‘Yes, fine,’ came the reply. ‘I’m really enjoying it, for the first time in months. In fact, more than I’ve ever enjoyed it before.’
Stu was puzzled. What did she mean by that? Then, halfway through the next song, he finally twigged. He’d been wondering what would happen in the next number, the first that would normally feature Davy on flute. She placed her sax on its stand, picked a flute from the corner of the stage and proceeded to play the introduction, note perfect. Even the subtle nuances were there. Stu gawped and missed two notes – that was Davy playing. No one else would play it like that.
And so it went on. The woman was playing out of her skin, playing like Davy but somehow more liberated. The crowd were going wild. They reached the final number, with Julie starting it as usual on the fiddle, played slow and soulfully. Then came the usual tempo increase as she started singing. Finally, the guitar solo that morphed into the notes of the alto sax, and then the sax player was away and running, playing with a sense of freedom and passion. Better than Johnny Almond, Stu thought, as the song came to an end to tumultuous applause. The audience were screaming and shouting. Stu walked across to the sax player.
‘What do I call you?’ he asked. ‘I can’t call you Davy, can I?’
‘Megan,’ came the reply.
Can we do another?’ Stu asked.
‘Crossroads,’ Megan replied. ‘I’ll take the solos.’
‘You’re on,’ Stu replied. He told the other band members. Luckily, they’d rehearsed it a couple of times even if they’d never played it in a show. Davy had never dared to attempt to recreate those famous Eric Clapton solos in front of an audience, particularly on the alto sax. Megan was obviously a different proposition.
After a quick discussion with the rest of the band, Julie walked back the microphone, smiling. ‘It’s 1968,’ she said. ‘We’re at the Fillmore in New York. I’m Eric. Megan across there is also Eric. You might just recognise this song.’
The audience erupted and the next six minutes became a real crossroads in Megan’s life. There was no going back now.