Promoter Sue McLean, force in Twin Cities music scene, dies at 63

JON BREAM | Updated 5/20/2013

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