With relentless rain, the BoDeans figured all hope was gone the night of their sold-out, outdoor show at the Minnesota Zoo. But when clouds subsided with time left for just a few songs, the Wisconsin-based rock-and-rollers were pleasantly surprised.
“It turned out, everyone stuck around,” lead singer Kurt Neumann says. “Everybody had brought garbage bags and ponchos and stuff like that, and had stuck around for like 90 minutes.”
Poncho-ready, loyal music fans have sold out the majority of Music in the Zoo shows in recent years. Since its start in 1992, the series has grown from a handful of folk and blues-centered gigs to about 30 diverse concerts each season, with big-name acts like Joan Baez, Blondie, and the Monkees.
“I think every band I know enjoys playing there,” says Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, who are playing two nights this August. The folk duo have played there nearly every other season for about a dozen years, she says.
The Minnesota Zoo began partnering with Sue McLean as the exclusive series promoter in the late ‘90s and, colleagues say, she built the series into what it is today: a musical, community-focused, perfectly planned party featuring both longtime returning acts and emerging artists. Four years after McLean’s death, her team at Sue McLean & Associates are celebrating 25 years of what’s become a Minnesota summer tradition.
“Sue, just by nature of who she was, saw [an] opportunity to really cultivate something for the music community. I think that feeling is still very apparent at the Zoo,” says Kimberly Gottschalk, president of Sue McLean & Associates. “I think she’s really created a great community of fans out there.”
During Minnesota Zoo hours, the Weesner Family Amphitheater is used for the “World of Birds” show. But at dusk, the 1,500-capacity venue set against the backdrop of a pond makes for an intimate music setting. The first row of seats comes right up to the stage, bringing fans close to the music.
“You feel like you’re in their living room,” says Patrick Sauter, a longtime friend of McLean’s and regular Music in the Zoo ticket-buyer. “And of course, it’s an idyllic setting, with the pond behind the stage, with the wildlife [like] ducks coming in for landing.”
With the scenic backdrop and the allure of a sunny evening playing for a packed crowd, Martin Zellar of the Gear Daddies says it’s an easy choice to keep coming back to the zoo.
“It’s as close as you can come to just the perfect place to play,” says Zellar. “There’s not a bad seat for sound, the sightlines are perfect […] It’s really one of those magical venues.”
Sue McLean & Associates is now run by her niece, Patricia McLean. When curating the shows, she and Gottschalk say they aim for an eclectic mix of established acts and up-and-comers. Local artists Caroline Smith, The Pines, and Nooky Jones all played Music in the Zoo gigs early in their careers.
Some bands—like Marc Cohn, the BoDeans, and the Indigo Girls—have achieved fan-favorite status, each returning to play several times for going on a decade.
“We’re not Justin Bieber or Ariana Grande; we’ve been around for a long time. So you don’t always expect there to be a big buzz about the shows, and when there is still, after  years, it’s because of the community,” Neumann says. “In this industry of music you don’t see that very often, so that is a very special thing.”
Aside from the picturesque setting and enthusiastic fans, artists say Sue McLean & Associates’s strong reputation for smooth sailing keeps them coming back. From clearly designated parking to well-prepared dressing rooms and timely stage set-up, artists report everything going off without a hitch.
“You don’t have to worry about anything. You show up at one of Sue’s events and you just know everything’s going to be top notch,” Zellar says.
“They’ve got it all down,” says Ray of the Indigo Girls.
Fans report similarly positive experiences. Carol Murray, who’s attended shows since 2002 and now sees about 15 each season, says she became friends with some of the Sue McLean & Associates crew. She remembers Sue McLean walking through the aisles of the amphitheater, saying hello to everyone before shows.
“She would always greet you. She was walking up the steps and she would say hello, regardless of whether she knew you or not,” she says.
Eventually, Sue McLean & Associates started a ticket club, which offers pre-sale tickets and preferred seating to shows that the promoter books across the Twin Cities. The club also includes an annual get-together, strengthening the bonds among returning concert goers, Murray says.
McLean’s infectious spirit of community helped the audience get to know each other over the years, Murray says. She and her family often buy standing room tickets, she says, and end up hanging out with people who have been coming as long as she has.
“When you say goodbye at the end of the night, it’s like, ‘I’ll see you for Ziggy Marley in the next few weeks,’” she says. “It’s people that really know the artists and connect.”
She says she’s met people visiting from across the country who wanted to make Music in the Zoo part of their itinerary. Likewise, she spreads the word about the Zoo when she sees concerts in other states.
“It’s not the same as Red Rocks, but on a Minnesota level, it’s a phenomenal venue. I just think we’re so lucky to have it,” she says.
Bands say one of their biggest draw to playing shows there is the sense of community they feel from the crowd.
“Those audiences really know how to pay attention,” Ray says. “They also are boisterous; they sing along, and they’re quiet during the quiet songs. It’s a perfect audience. We’ve never had a bad show there.”
Ray says one of her favorite aspects of playing the Zoo is that unlike other, indoor venues, she can see the audiences’ faces while it’s still light outside.
“We always look into the audience and we see a lot of the people we know from playing there,” she says. “When you’ve been doing it this long, there’s always people you see and they’re singing along.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.