Except for the cooling effect of that newfangled invention known as air conditioning, last Sunday night at the Cedar Cultural Center felt like any night at the Cedar before the mid-2000s.
On stage, a couple of semi-twangy local songwriters with acoustic guitars, Chastity Brown and Romantica's Ben Kyle, swapped songs and stories as part of the venue's Song Exchange series. At the bar, attendees quizzed the Cedar's ridiculously congenial volunteer staff on what flavors of hot tea or local beers were available. In the crowd, patrons eased back into folding chairs set up on the wood floor, adding to the cozy family-room vibe.
Those seats symbolize the give-and-take between the Cedar's rich history as a nonprofit hippie and world-music haven, and the savvier, hipper qualities that have brought the venue to its 25th anniversary — a yearlong celebration that will kick off in September.
"A lot of the younger fans come in now and see the chairs and are like, 'What the … ?" said the Cedar's new artistic director, Sage Dahlen. In other words, the West Bank venue's once-prevalent seating system has been replaced more and more by general-admission standing shows that often cater to younger crowds.
Dahlen herself is symbolic of this new era. At 25, the bespectacled, brown-haired Minneapolis native is just a year older than the venue she helps run. She started as a volunteer in 2005 while still at South High School. She stayed on through her years at the University of Minnesota, where she was active at Radio K and got a crash course in world music working on Paul Harding's "Radio K International" show.
For the past three years, Dahlen has been working as an assistant to Cedar executive director Rob Simonds, who is turning over the booking reins to focus on a new fundraising campaign and other chores that go with running a 501(c) nonprofit organization.
It was Simonds, a longtime Cedar board member and former record executive for Rykodisc, who brought the venue back from the brink of financial ruin starting in 2007. He booked more and more and hipper and hipper rock shows — some brought to the venue via First Avenue's booking team, and most helped along with airplay from 89.3 the Current. That included gigs by Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Beach House, Sharon Van Etten and, in recent months, Boy and Unknown Mortal Orchestra.
Another of the club's new-era staffers, marketing coordinator Michael Rossetto, disputed the perception that these hipster shows replaced the Cedar's old hippie flavor.
"We're still booking Tom Rush and Greg Brown and all those great musicians who embodied the Cedar in years past, but we're booking a whole lot of other stuff, too," said Rossetto, a rootsy musician himself who plays banjo with the Pines. (Speaking of Rush: His Cedar gig postponed last week because of flight problems has been rescheduled for Sept. 7.)
Dahlen even suggested it might be dangerous for the Cedar to rely on those trendier, Current-buoyed bands, given its mid-size capacity among local venues. (It holds about 625 people when the chairs are gone.) "The Beach Houses of the world aren't playing venues this size anymore; they're going straight to the bigger rooms," she said.
Actually, one of Dahlen's projects is expanding to smaller rooms via the "Cedar Presents" brand. Like First Ave, the Cedar is now using its good name to book other venues. Wednesday's Laura Marling gig at the Woman's Club fell under that umbrella, as will upcoming dates at the Icehouse and Bryant-Lake Bowl. She said those outside bookings are "about finding the right room to fit the band."
One thing that hasn't changed is the Cedar's commitment to world music, even after post-9/11 visa issues made it more difficult to bring in international acts. It hosted the African Summer series over June and July with the likes of Vieux Farka Touré. It recently hired Fadumo Ibrahim to act as a liaison with Somali residents and other East African neighbors prevalent in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
The Cedar is making international music the crux of its first month of 25th anniversary concerts, offering four free shows in September: Zimbabwe music hero Oliver Mtukudzi (Sept. 1); Ethiopia's Krar Collective (Sept. 18) and two no-cover nights of the Global Roots Festival with DakhaBrakha and Kardemimmit (Sept. 24) and the Debo Band and Christine Salem (Sept. 25). Upcoming anniversary concerts (though not free) include Swedish mainstays Väsen on Sept. 20 and Malian star Rokia Traoré on Nov. 25.
Dahlen also hasn't forgotten one other contingent for whom the venue is important: "I take the all-ages thing very seriously," she said, reiterating that every show there is open to everyone. "I can't tell you how important this place was to me when I was in high school."
Let's just hope she can sell today's kids on the idea of chairs.