Sage of the Cedar

A 20-something Radio K alum takes over West Bank’s great musical melting pot

The fact that the Cedar Cultural Center turns 25 this fall makes us feel a little old. The fact that the Cedar has just tapped local music-scene wunderkind/whippersnapper Sage Dahlen to be its new artistic director…well, that just makes us feel ancient. Dahlen—world-music aficionado, former Radio K deejay, and diehard Eddie Vedder fan—brings a blast of youth (and a shockingly long résumé) to the eclectic, always all-ages venue.

So who has more candles on the birthday cake this year, you or the Cedar?
Sage Dahlen: Ha! It’s pretty close. But I am a bit older…by a few months.

Well, you had a head start. You were still in high school when you first started as a deejay on Radio K, right?
Yeah, I was at South High when I started working on a Radio K program called the Breakfast Club. It was a Saturday-morning variety show programmed entirely by high-school volunteers. Later, in college, I assisted [global-music guru] Paul Harding with Radio K International. I started volunteering at the Cedar my junior year.

Sounds like you were pretty hip at a pretty young age.
I wouldn’t say I was hip, but I was a music fan. I took piano and flute lessons at MacPhail as a kid. I went to a lot of shows as a high-school student. I was into mix-tape culture. My earliest musical memories are of my dad singing Pearl Jam songs.

You were a grunge baby?
I was! And that phase is pretty much continuing. I was in Chicago a couple of weeks ago to see Pearl Jam play Wrigley Field. Full disclosure: they have been my favorite band since I was three years old.

And your first CDs?
Semisonic and Destiny’s Child. Not really in line with what we do at the Cedar…

What was your first experience at the Cedar?
Well, the first show I worked as a house manager was a Tuvan throat-singing group called Huun-Huur-Tu.

That’s pretty Cedar-y. What areas of the world are exciting you right now musically?
I’m really loving the desert blues coming out of Mali. I have a really big soft spot for Brazilian music. We’ve had some great Ethiopian musicians playing the Cedar lately.

What’s on the schedule this year at the Cedar? What’s coming down the pipe?
Our Global Roots Festival kicks off on September 24. We’ve got a group from Ukraine, a group from Finland, an Ethiopian act out of Boston, an artist from Reunion Island [near Madagascar]—it’s a week that pretty much sums up the Cedar’s style. That Sunday we have this drone-metal-rock woman performing, with a stoner metal band opening. We have a German pop superstar on Monday. Billy Bragg on Thursday. And then we have a couple other pop folk groups on Friday. On Saturday we have Shovels & Rope—kind of alt-folk-y—and Shakey Graves, which is kind of a one-man band/stomp-box/Austin blues thing. I think that kind of represents the breadth of what we do here.

Gregory J. Scott is a regular contributor to Minnesota Monthly.