Cabbie delivers blues legend 190 miles to Thunder Bay
To Bayside Taxi driver Nicholas Berg, the patrons were, for much of the trip to Canada, just "six guys crammed into a Dodge Caravan."
But to organizers of the Thunder Bay Blues Fest, this was precious cargo: longtime bluesman Taj Mahal and his band, the waylaid headliners for the last day of an event that had been riddled with hiccups.
Berg, a relative newbie to the cabbie circuit, took a call in the early afternoon on Sunday asking him to drive a group of men from Duluth to Thunder Bay, a 190-mile trip. The group's flight from Minneapolis to Thunder Bay had been canceled. They had asked to get as close to Canada as they could get and ended up in Duluth. The men told Berg they had to make it to a concert by 8 p.m.
"I knew they were musicians and I knew they were playing in a concert," Berg said. "I just didn't realize how big of musicians they were. ... I love the blues. But I really don't know any blues artists."
Berg, who is earning a reputation for being a cab driver with a passport, said he chatted with the three band members and three of their people when they weren't sleeping. The man Berg later learned was blues musician Taj Mahal impressed him as "an extremely intelligent, well-traveled man. We just started talking about traveling. It's my goal to see every country. I've been to 14. He's been to far, far more than I have."
Taj Mahal discussed the terrain of northern Minnesota. "He was really shocked how close in similarity it was to Sweden and Norway," comparing the lake and shore to lakes and fjords of Scandinavia.
They made a stop for dinner at the Grand Marais Dairy Queen. At the border, Berg told the customs agent that he was driving a band to Thunder Bay. She asked the name of the band.
"The Taj Mahal Trio," Berg said the manager answered. Still, this didn't mean much to the driver -- until a woman having her car searched asked to get her picture taken with the Grammy Award-winning blues musician.
Taj Mahal -- originally named Henry Saint Clair Fredericks -- has been in the biz for more than 40 years, and has two dozen studio albums. The 68-year-old legend has a full summer schedule of festivals and solo shows around North America.
Berg said he remembers thinking: "You telling me I had some famous people in my cab all the way and I didn't even realize it? I was talking to them as if they were ordinary tourists."
Customs officials had been notified that the band was coming, said Bob Halvorsen, the Thunder Bay Community Auditorium's general manager, who coordinated the outdoor event. He had sent ahead Social Security numbers, passport info, dates of birth. All four members of Michael Burks band were turned back at the border earlier in the festival, and so was a sound tech for Blues Traveler. On top of that, a transformer blew on Friday night, bringing a premature end to the first night of the ninth annual event. Halvorsen couldn't afford any more mishaps.
When the Bayside Taxi pulled into the parking lot, with a musician worthy of a limo or at least a tour bus, it became the feel-good story of the weekend, Halvorsen said. The Taj Mahal Trio was just 15 minutes late, and took a bit more time to stretch and eat.
"What a testament to (Taj Mahal's) character," he said. "I'm sure he doesn't need the money. He probably doesn't need the work. ... I've seen different acts from country to rock. I've never seen anything like that. Usually it's the smallest thing that will blow someone up. This guy here was overcoming all odds to come up here."
Berg said the band didn't say much when they got out of the vehicle "They just thanked me, shook my hand, and went to play."
But the cab driver got a lot of love from the concert promoters, who gave him two tickets to next year's festival and accommodations. They joked with the audience that if anyone needed a ride back to Duluth, they had the guy.
The 3½ hour trip up the North Shore was a $350 fare. But the night was still young for Berg, who was called back to Duluth after dropping off the band, and finished his 12-hour shift at 2:45 a.m.