When she took the reins of the Cedar Cultural Center in June, Michelle Woster more than once received the same blunt message from people who were actually wishing her well.
"Don't [bleep] it up," the new executive director of the nonprofit music venue recalled.
In its 33 years of operation in a former movie theater in Minneapolis' West Bank/Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, "the Cedar" has built up a cultish reputation as a haven for international performers, independent singer-songwriters and other musicians often left off more mainstream concert circuits. It's also well regarded as one of the warmest and best-sounding — if not luxurious — listening rooms in town.
A veteran of nonprofit arts organizations and a music fan herself, Woster knew exactly what was meant by those comments.
"People feel attached to this place in a way that's pretty unique," she said. "It's more a part of the community than a lot of other venues, and a part of people's lives in Minneapolis."
However, all that love for the Cedar couldn't help it get through the COVID-19 pandemic unscathed, or without some of the community's lingering scars following George Floyd's murder in 2020. Many employees had to be let go, and show bookings lagged for much of 2021.
In short, the place was already a bit messed up when Woster took over.
Now, though, the 645-person-capacity venue is entering a new era with new leadership and energy, plus a new booking director, Mary Brabec, who arrived with three decades of experience in the concert industry. She, too, hopes to retain many of the old traits that made the Cedar stand out.
Case in point: After already hosting acts earlier this month from as far away as Cape Verde, Finland and Ukraine, the Cedar will welcome artists from Estonia, Afghanistan, India and (checks notes) Malawi next week for the return of its popular Global Roots Festival — an event offered for free, thanks to endowment money.
The Cedar is effectively doubling down on its efforts to showcase international music in the Twin Cities — a challenging task of late given the difficulties of international travel.
"Since people couldn't travel for so long — and we're still dealing with so many travel issues — we feel more than ever it's our mission to bring music from all over the world to them here and expose them to different sounds and cultures," Brabec said in an interview last month. She also confessed then, "I can't tell you how much time I've spent on visa issues for artists."
Sure enough, a gig earlier this month by the Grammy Award-winning Tuareg group from the Sahara Desert blues group Tinariwen had to be rescheduled once and then outright canceled when the group ran into repeat documentation troubles coming to America. Luckily, another Tuareg group, Imarhan, is still expected at the Cedar on Oct. 11. Ethiopian Israeli groover Gili Yalo is another big overseas act due to play there Oct. 1.
A former talent agent at the indie-music powerhouse Billions Corp. who also booked at the Dakota, Brabec said she always pointed artists to the Cedar long before she went to work there because "it's such a great room run by people in it for the love of the music," including the many volunteers who get paid in show tickets to work there.
Both the volunteer force and the paid staff are slowly being ramped up again after the hiring of Woster, who previously served as a managing director at Theater Latté Da and Ten Thousand Things Theater. She praised her predecessors and the staffers who've been retained for keeping the Cedar's lights on during a dark period.
"Cedar leadership was very strategic about spending during the shutdown and was able to secure [relief] funding for the organization," Woster said, citing the #SaveOurStages federal grant money spearheaded by Sen. Amy Klobuchar as well as PPP loans.
"[They] also did a great job of creating relevant, mission-centered digital programming to stay connected with audiences and get money into the hands of musicians."
A holdover from the Cedar staff pre-COVID who's also involved in booking, Community and Grant-Funded Programs Manager Robert Lehmann oversaw much of the Cedar's virtual events during lockdown. He said, "A lot of the [virtual] programming during the pandemic was about maintaining good relationships with our community, and trying to help it heal."
There's a lot of local stuff on the calendar in the coming months, including: a fundraiser for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault with Jillian Rae and Emily Haavik on Saturday; the West Bank Block Party with Lady Midnight, Hassan Shahid, Jada Brown and more Oct. 1; Dylan Hicks & Small Screens' album release party Oct. 29; and a 15th anniversary bash by the never-more-important Ukrainian Village Band on Nov. 5.
The Cedar is also welcoming back many touring folkies and indie-rockers who used to be a big part of its programming, including David Wilcox on Oct. 9; the Waco Brothers on Oct. 14; the Lowest Pair on Oct. 15; Okkervil River's Will Sheff on Nov. 4; guitar hero Marc Ribot on Nov. 6; British great Beth Orton on Nov. 12; and John Gorka on Nov. 19.
"The most important thing we can do going into 2023 is to get our calendar back to pre-COVID frequency," Woster said. "It's a competitive market — with our greatest competitor being people's couches."
As if any of us could ever expect to hear bands from Malawi or Afghanistan or Finland perform live with great sound at other venues in town, much less our own living rooms.
Global Roots Festival
Monday: Puuluup (from Estonia) and Qwanqwa (Ethiopia).
Tuesday: Heart of Afghanistan.
Wednesday: Roopa in Flux (India) and Madalitso Band (Malawi).
Where: Cedar Cultural Center, 416 Cedar Av. S., Mpls.
Tickets: Free with RSVP via thecedar.org.