Taxi provides tunes with ride
The van approached under the cover of darkness, traveling incognito through the shadows. The light, yellow hump clearly demarcated the full-sized, white van as a taxi, but it was only when it pulled closer, under a streetlight, that the loud logo revealed the name ‘Music Taxi’ over a picture of a taxi filled with laughing people and spilling music notes. The door was opened by Rich Wyman, a 15-year Parkite wearing a flashy sports coat and a big grin. He was seated behind a full-sized keyboard and lit by the pale glow of Christmas lights.
As the van lurched to life, Wyman asked for a request and, when asked to play whatever he wanted, launched into a soaring classical piece that sprang from under his agile fingertips.
Zafod Beatlebrox, owner and driver of the Music Taxi, first had the idea of live music playing in a taxi in 1998 when he was driving for another company in town.
"I have a different way of looking at things," said Beatlebrox matter of factly, "I don’t take things the way they are."
Among the things that he found needing improvement was the crushing tedium of a taxi ride, both for the passenger and the driver. In hopes of lightening the atmosphere, Beatlebrox strung multicolored Christmas lights along the upper edge of his van before beginning his shift. It worked.
"That night I picked up a couple different groups of people," remembered Beatlebrox with that startling social awareness of those who spend their days, or nights, around throngs of people, "There were two young, Latino waitress types, two thirtyish, upper-class Latino guys, and two old, white ladies who were definitely upper class. By the time we dropped off the old ladies, everybody serenaded them goodbye."
When Beatlebrox told his son, then 21, about the change a few simple strings of lights made, the youth blurted out an idea. "Dad, you need a four-piece brass band in the back of the van." The torch was lit and Beatlebrox began searching for a willing musician.
The quest proved difficult, including a test run that led to the country singer bailing out two thirds of the way through the night with a stomach that had been decidedly upset by the jolts and sways that are symptomatic of riding in the back of a large vehicle. Beatlebrox also noted another problem. "When the musician was in the back, passengers tend to ignore them like a sound system."
When Beatlebrox found Wyman they removed the van’s front row of seats, installed a keyboard, and the Music Taxi hit the town.
The fact that Wyman played both in the early days and last Friday during Sundance is nothing but coincidence. The Music Taxi does not hold to a strict schedule for its guest musicians and more often than not doesn’t have a live musician but, instead, treats its patrons to a karaoke show.
"Most people would rather do karaoke than have a quality, live performance," said Beatlebrox, "it’s sad to say that but it’s true."
There have even been some confrontations about what the musician chose to play. "If I have something a little unusual, like bluegrass or something, some people would get mad at one," said Beatlebrox. One such event escalated to a drunken grab for an amplifier wire.
However, Wyman ran into no such difficulties. As he swung the side doors open he met with responses that ranged from disbelief to glee. "This is awesome!" exclaimed one patron after no more than ten seconds inside. When she left she dropped a large tip into the shoe strapped to Wyman’s keyboard for that purpose.
He moved skillfully through different genres of music, playing Peter Gabriel, The Doors, and Pink Floyd with equal panache. When he lapsed into a little Dylan he strung a harmonica on a stand around his neck and expertly wove the nasal twang into his melodious rendition.
Also, the show was entirely interactive. Along with continually fielding requests and changing lyrics to fit the scene ("we’re all sitting here in this taxi"), Wyman intermittently interrupted his performance as road conditions demanded.
Playing piano while sitting backwards on a small stool in a moving van that stops, turns, and goes over bumps without warning is not something for the faint of heart, or weak of stomach. "Ohh, now we’re going in reverse; now I’m gonna throw up," joked Wyman.
Whenever the van stopped suddenly he would begin to topple backward before regaining his balance with the help of a small disco ball hung directly behind his head like a tough-love airbag. "Every time that happens my heart stops and I break into a sweat," admitted Wyman. "This is the hardest gig I’ve ever done."
Adding to the party atmosphere in the Music Taxi is its size. Even with one seat removed to create space for the keyboard, the van can comfortably seat 10 passengers, which allows multiple groups to ride in the taxi together. Like the first night with the Christmas lights, groups of complete strangers are brought together to enjoy the festive atmosphere. "Sometimes people will spend 45 minutes or an hour in the taxi," says Beatlebrox. And despite conventional wisdom, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
One local calls the Music Taxi, "our exclusive taxi service." He pointed to one of the aphorisms printed on the side of van that reads "Cheaper than a DUI " "It’s so true," he giggled.
The Music Taxi serves the Park City area with year round, possible 24-hour service. "You can call 24 hours a day," said Wyman with a grin, "but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll come get you."
When not en-route to a specific pick-up, Beatlebrox’s two vans troll Main Street for needy pedestrians who are likely to hear the Music Taxi coming before they see it approach.
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