Sue McLean, the force behind Basilica Block Party and zoo concerts, has died at age 63.
She was backstage doing what concert promoters do: making sure the catering was perfect, making sure the road manager was happy and writing checks to the night’s star, security people and everyone else who helped stage the concert. But Sue McLean wanted to go out and catch a few songs of k.d. lang at the O’Shaughnessy.
The promoter went to the back of the auditorium, ducked into a special booth and, with a beatific smile, marveled at the wondrous lang.
McLean had a music connoisseur’s taste, a philanthropist’s spirit of generosity and a shy schoolgirl’s soft voice. She became the world’s most successful independent female concert promoter, bringing good times to Minnesota music lovers for more than three decades at the Basilica Block Party, the Minnesota Zoo, the Guthrie Theater and other venues.
McLean died Friday afternoon at her Minneapolis home after a long bout with cancer. She was 63.
“She had a greater effect providing musical joy to the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota via her work than Dylan and Prince combined,” said veteran Minneapolis singer-songwriter Paul Metsa. “Sue was a true lifer who both lived by and conducted her business by high ethical and artistic standards and exquisite taste. Unlike most of those in positions of power in the music business, she was completely devoid of attitude and ego.”
Although she didn’t broadcast her illness to the world, McLean was planning ahead. She brought her niece, Patricia McLean, into the business several months ago.
“I’ll be taking over the business at Sue McLean & Associates [SMA] and it will continue business as usual, “ Patricia McLean said Friday. “Sue left an incredible legacy to uphold. I’m not Sue, but I’m going to do my damnedest.”
SMA has booked 30 concerts this summer at the Minnesota Zoo, including Willie Nelson, Pat Benatar and Trombone Shorty. The Basilica Block Party on July 12-13 will feature Matchbox 20, Goo Goo Dolls and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.
SMA also presents shows at other venues, including the Guthrie, Fitzgerald Theater, Cabooze and the O’Shaughnessy, where McLean championed the Women of Substance Series. Her biggest show this summer could be June 29 with the Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile and others at the Summer Set fest at the Somerset, Wis., amphitheater.
Started rock camp for girls
McLean grew up in Dayton, Minn., daughter of a schoolteacher mother and bar-owner father. While earning a degree in speech and communication at St. Cloud State, she worked on the college radio station and then, in 1974, joined longtime Minneapolis promoter Randy Levy’s company, where she graduated from booking local bands Suicide Commandos and the Flamin’ Oh’s to budding stars Elvis Costello and Talking Heads.
She spent 10 years at the Guthrie, booking concerts (and has remained the exclusive music booker there) and, in 1998, formed SMA.
Four years ago, McLean started Tween Town Girls Camp, an overnight camp in Excelsior where girls learn how to play instruments and perform in a rock band.
“Girls that age — 10 to 14 — are tough,” she said in an interview last year. “You can go in a lot of different directions. In my case, I was hanging around with the wrong crowd.”
She created the camp because of “the mom in me. I wanted Lilly [her now 12-year-old daughter] to have the experience of performance and team building. Being in a band is a good complement to sports — even if it’s just three days. I think it’s important for self-esteem.”
Rare woman in music biz
McLean’s admirers ranged from music fans to mayors to rock stars.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said McLean “dramatically helped elevate the local music scene with her ability to bring in amazing artists from around the world and make it affordable and accessible for everyone to see them. She was able to do that in the smaller venues where the performances always felt more intimate and special, and yet she still didn’t overprice the tickets.”
Rybak worked closely with McLean when he was publisher of the Twin Cities Reader, the now-defunct alt-weekly newspaper, and they would quibble over trades for promotion. “Negotiating with Sue made the City Council seem easy,” Rybak said Friday. “She was tough, but even at her toughest she was able to maintain a friendly relationship. I loved working with her.”
As a woman in the concert business, McLean stood alone.
“In terms of a company completely run by a woman risking her own money on shows, I can’t think of another person,” Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the national concert journal Pollstar, said last year. “There are women in talent-buying at Madison Square Garden, AEG Live and Live Nation. But Sue is competing with the big boys. She’s managed to carve a little niche for herself.”
Musicians understood that.
“Not only was it rare that she was such a successful woman in the concert business, but it was very rare that she remained independent while every other small promotions company in the country got bought up by Live Nation and AEG,” said Minneapolis rocker Kevin Bowe, who used to hang posters for McLean’s shows years ago. “She did exactly what she wanted to do with her life for her whole life,” including jumping out of helicopters for downhill skiing.
McLean had a human touch that set her apart from other promoters.
“Besides being a complete professional and always getting the job done, she also always gave me a hug and made me feel special,” said St. Paul singer-songwriter Molly Maher.
A couple of years ago when both of them were undergoing chemotherapy and keeping it relatively under wraps, they looked at each other at a Los Lobos concert (“both of ours favorite band”) and asked, “Are you wearing a wig?” said Maher. “After that, our bond was pretty strong.”
McLean is survived by her daughter, Lilly; her brother, Terry, and his wife, Joan; her sister-in-law Marilyn McLean, and several nieces and nephews.
Services are set for 11 a.m. Friday at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, with reviewal beginning at 9:30 a.m. A reception will follow. A musical tribute fundraiser will be staged on another day, and details about a fund for Lilly McLean will be available at www.suemclean.com.
Staff writer Chris Riemenschneider contributed to this story.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719