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A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13

A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13
Photos by Mark N. Kartarik

A Tribute to Sue McLean
With Eric Hutchinson, BoDeans, Soul Asylum, Haley Bonar, X-Boys, Rogue Valley, and others
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday's tribute to Sue McLean was rarely precious. Instead, it was raw and fearless as the woman herself. The independent concert promoter, who died earlier this year after a battle with cancer, saw to it that Minnesotans lived out the oft-repeated phrase, "Live music is good for your soul." So a bustling First Avenue with drinks, loud chatter, and a long lineup of bands who developed a kinship with McLean over the years was the ideal way to toast her impact on the local concert business.

"I like a woman with balls," was how Dave Pirner put it midway through Soul Asylum's set. And judging by the hundreds of well-heeled attendees, he wasn't the only one.

See Also: Slideshow: A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13

With a few exceptions, the night of short performances leaned heavily towards a rock and Americana roster, and why not? The same can be said for the artistic meat of two long-standing concert traditions in the Twin Cities built by Sue McLean and Associates: Cities 97's Basilica Block Party and the summer amphitheater staple Music in the Zoo series.

Basilica vet Eric Hutchinson, a clean-cut singer-songwriter based in New York who enjoys a large following here, was the ostensible headliner. However, he performed his 20-minute acoustic set in the middle of the evening. "Sue was extremely supportive to me," he said after a plucky version of "All Over Now" that incorporated bits of Prince's "Little Red Corvette," Marc Cohn's "Walking in Memphis," and Madonna's "Material Girl." Along with originals like "Rock & Roll," he also pulled out the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." The implication of the song choice was clear.

A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13
A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13
A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13
Photos by Mark N. Kartarik

With quick changeovers between a roster of enough bands for a whole festival, the artists expressed their gratitude to Sue with brief remarks and mostly let the music do the work for them. It led to short sets from the joyous songbird Molly Maher and her Disbelievers -- assisted by Curtiss A -- as well as Jayhawks' Marc Perlman and Tim O'Reagan that definitely could've been stretched out into longer events in themselves. An early, heartfelt highlight was Paul Metsa's All-Star Band taking on the Band's "I Shall Be Released." Then, Mick Sterling got emotional while delivering Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" in honor of McLean. These would be among the last glimpses of decorum, as the music got louder and faster material prevailed.

Two Midwest-sprung rock survivors on the bill came in the form of Soul Asylum -- now with frontman Dave Pirner the only remaining founding member -- and Wisconsin's BoDeans, who have also been rebuilt a bit around singer Kurt Neumann. The latter stoked the party with career-spanning roots-rock hits like "Good Things" and "Fadeaway," and momentarily inspired a miniature hoedown on the mainroom floor during extended fiddle solos.

A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13
A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13
Photos by Mark N. Kartarik

As for Soul Asylum, every song was post-Grave Dancer's Union, including a rocking pair from 2006's The Silver Lining. Pirner and company were playful with the audience, who had just finished bidding on some luxury auction items to benefit McLean's daughter Lilly. Bassist Winston Roye launched a pick about thirty feet deep into the crowd. Later, Pirner looked like he was doing the same with his guitar, but snagged its strap and yanked it back at the last minute.

 

A loose and rowdy bunch came later in the form of supergroup X-Boys, featuring singer Casey MacPherson, Suicide Commandos guitarist Chris Osgood, the Suburbs' Chan Poling on keys, and an assortment of talented friends. Spanning hits popularized by the Temptations/Al Green ("Can't Get Next to You"), John Baldry ("Don't Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll") and Bryan Ferry ("Let's Stick Together"), it was a wham bam, thank you ma'am nod to McLean with horns and flourishes aplenty. It looked like so much fun that Pirner couldn't restrain himself from jumping in the middle of the proceedings.

A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13
A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13
A Tribute to Sue McLean at First Avenue, 11/23/13
Photos by Mark N. Kartarik

By including Rogue Valley and Haley Bonar, the night showed that McLean's ear for local talent extended into the present. With City Pages contributor Chris Koza and Linnea Mohn intricately harmonizing to front the folk-rock band on upbeat strummers like "Red River of the North," the night stayed true to its musical vision until the very end. But it was Bonar's solo, acoustic set -- including some taut material from her forthcoming Last War -- that reflected back to McLean in a different way. Like Sue McLean did over the course of several decades, she exhibited how strong individuals can rise by themselves out of the noise around them and creatively thrive.

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: I never got to meet Sue McLean, but I've grown close to her spirit through the stories of coworkers and colleagues around the Twin Cities. Everyone speaks to her drive to be the best, and her heart. As Cities 97's Brian Oake said during one of the breaks between performers, "There's not one person in this room who did not benefit from her work." I believe that statement carries over for anyone who has ever picked up a copy of City Pages or hit a concert in the Twin Cities. Anything great and lasting takes a lot of time to create, and Sue's mark on the strength and diversity of our concert scene is indelible.

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