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This article was published 14/1/2020 (259 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Any music-loving Winnipegger has a lot to thank Kevin Donnelly for.
As the senior vice-president of venues and entertainment for True North Sports and Entertainment, Donnelly works behind the scenes to manage both the Bell MTS Place and the Burton Cummings Theatre (which True North assumed operation of in 2014). That includes deciding upon and co-ordinating all the acts that play on two of the city’s biggest and most well-loved stages.
He is also one of the most affable guys in the entertainment business; he’s always willing to answer questions — from media or otherwise — as candidly and thoughtfully as he can, he’ll excitedly talk music with anyone who will engage with him on the subject and on more than one occasion, I’ve personally seen him be mistaken for an usher by confused Bell MTS Place patrons whom he then directed to their seats without a second thought.
Donnelly, a dad of four and Regina native, found himself in Winnipeg in the early 1980s after a stint in his home city working independently for different concert promoters. But the 57-year-old recalls his journey in the music business began in high school, when he helped out backstage at concerts for anyone from Bruce Cockburn to Chris de Burgh.
"I remember being in Grade 12 and getting a note from my mother excusing me from school because I had the opportunity to work at a Ted Nugent concert. So I showed off the note to all my friends before I handed the note to my principal," laughs Donnelly, crediting his brother, John Donnelly of the Queen City Kids, with getting him into the live music scene.
Donnelly was brought to Winnipeg to work for Night Out Entertainment, a then new company run by Sam Katz, Gilles Paquin and Bruce Rathbone, where he stayed until 1995. He moved to Vancouver to run the Western Canadian operations for the promoter House of Blues (which, after being sold many times, ended up in the hands of SFX Entertainment, which in turn became Live Nation).
Toward the end of 2001, Donnelly found himself back in Winnipeg after True North reached out for help with marketing materials for the new arena, and then offered him a job. He helped wind things down at the Winnipeg Arena and amp things up at the new one, which opened as the MTS Centre in 2004.
In his nearly 20 years with True North, Donnelly has not only seen but led a lot of change, and his work in concert programming has helped put Winnipeg on the tour-routing map for A-list musicians that previously would have bypassed the city.
Donnelly chatted with the Free Press about some career highlights, the ones that got away and how he spends his time away from the arena.
You’ve been in the entertainment promotion industry your entire career; do you still get surprised by anything?
I think the answer is you always have to expect the unexpected. Every day, honestly, every day is different and you never know when your phone is going to ring with some completely new challenge that kind of fits the skills you’ve got, but definitely pushes those skills.
Like the Burton Cummings Theatre, that was in the hands of some well-meaning, volunteer board members that had a not-for-profit that had no bank account, no capacity to take any risks... truthfully they had approached me a number of years earlier and asked if True North would have an interest, and I can’t even remember, it might have been ‘07 or ‘08, but we had our hands full with this building (Bell MTS Place), it was running full steam and the Moose were busy and we were hearing NHL outreaches and stuff like that. So previously there had been an earnest approach and then in 2013 that call came and I scratched my head and thought, ‘How do we do this? How can it work?’ So that’s an example of you don’t know what’s coming.
In terms of musicians or comedians, who do you consider your biggest get at this arena?
Paul McCartney. You’d have to think a Beatle, right? (laughs) And that’s no slight to Elton John or anybody else who’s been here, Eric Clapton, but you have to think, "OK, but they weren’t in the Beatles." They were inspired by the Beatles. So that has to be singularly in a group of its own. If another Beatle comes, add it to that grouping.
I assume you got to meet him?
I didn’t this last time, I did previously when he played at the new stadium (in 2013). I had my photo taken with him and never saw the picture. His publicity team takes the pictures and said, "We’ll send it to you," but Paul reviews the pictures, and so somebody must have been blinking or it wasn’t a good hair day for him or me, but it didn’t pass the test so I didn’t get a copy.
Do you ever get star-struck?
Around McCartney, yeah, sure. I think with everybody you get a little star-struck; unless you can sing like that, you have to have an admiration for that skill. I get star-struck around the Jets players in the hallway on their way to the parking lot. I think you get star-struck with any level of performer and it’s probably important to hang on to that, so you can put in an honest effort and say, "How do I get other people excited to see this person?" So you gotta hang on to a bit of that excitement.
Do you have a white whale in terms of performers?
Other than Springsteen.
I don’t know that I do anymore. You don’t want to be boastful and say you’ve worked with everybody that you care about, but at a certain aging level, you actually tick a lot of boxes off the list. I was very disappointed with the passing of Prince because we were in negotiations with his people at that time for him to play some shows at the Burt.
That would have been incredible.
It would have been incredible! And it was a very short time; they would call you and the show would be a week later, a very short turn-around. A demanding, wild schedule he was maintaining that ended up contributing to his demise. So, we were in actual discussions, right down to the final details when he passed. And there’s lots I’ve worked with before I would love to have back; I’d love to have Pearl Jam come back, I’d love to have the Foo Fighters come back, I’d love to have Lady Gaga come back. They’ve all been here before but you can’t ever remove them from your list.
What’s the weirdest rider request you’ve gotten?
I think the best one was, and I don’t remember who it was, but somebody wanted a dog and it said, in brackets, "Nothing weird, just to pet."
So... you just brought one in from a shelter?
No, no. Everyone knows someone with a dog! I can’t remember whose dog we brought, though. The good news, in terms of riders, is that the weirdness and excesses have left the building. Everybody has woken up to the fact that it costs them money, it’s their money they are spending. The party’s over, this is a job. Now it’s all about sustaining. "I’m going to do this 70 times, this is what I need for my crew to eat and for all of us to stay alive and stay healthy."
The rock-star caviar thing, there was a long time when that was de rigueur, it was routine. When I think to my younger era, being the backstage co-ordinator at the Winnipeg Arena in the early-mid ‘80s and the bands were Bon Jovi and all the hard-rock hair acts, it was crazy. It was absolutely a rule-less existence back there and I just had a job to do. I just tried to supply the supplies and manage it and try to leave Rome without it burning to the ground. I was a witness but not a participant, and I can say that honestly (laughs).
Do you have a favourite artist or album that you find yourself coming back to?
We talked about Springsteen; I’m a huge Springsteen fan, as well he occupies the "white whale" spot. I was in New York for work and I got a chance to see David Byrne and I was very disappointed we didn’t get him, due to routing and circumstances. We were routed and considered at the Burt for the David Byrne American Utopia tour, he played Minneapolis two shows and then Edmonton instead of stopping in Winnipeg for one. Had Minneapolis not been two, we could have had a date. But that happens all the time and you try to get over it and you never do. So yeah, the Talking Heads. I’m a Clash fan, Elvis Costello, that sort of thing.
How do you spend your time when you’re off the clock?
I’m a bit of an exercise nerd; I don’t run as much as I used to but I have run 40 marathons. Getting to 40 seemed to be easy, but getting to the 41st seems impossible, so it’s been about three or four years since I’ve done my last marathon. And I cycle a ton. I don’t want to say I’m obsessive, my family would say obsessive, but I’m committed to trying to stay healthy and what I like are activities you can do socially. You can run with a group of people and talk while you’re doing the sport; it’s not a race, I’m not looking to beat them and likewise with cycling. I like activities where there’s camaraderie built in and it can exist without competition. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve been going to the south of France and doing a bike ride with friends every year and it’s become sort of a thing, I’ve been doing it 10 years now. It’s beautiful and it sounds more hoity-toity than it is; we found a spot that’s very affordable.
We’re still early in the year; did you have any 2020 resolutions?
No, every year I say I should work more and exercise more and then I get punched in the head by my wife (laughs). So, I think I’m in a bit of a groove and I don’t dislike my groove. I think I work pretty hard, I think I work fairly diligently and you try to allow for life to happen and allow for changes to happen that make you change that habit. But for the near future, I’m quite content to say more of the same. More work because everyone’s got bills to pay, more exercise — my dad beat me at pool over the Christmas holiday and he’s 92, so I committed to try and live as long as my father and in the kind of great health that my father is enjoying. Just more of the same.
Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
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