Immediately after a recent Friday night appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman,” Gear Daddies’ lead singer Martin Zellar stood backstage numb and overwhelmed.
“For a second, I didn’t remember anything. I didn’t know if I sang the right lyrics, if I played the guitar part,” he says. “I could have fallen down, and I wouldn’t have remembered.”
The one-song gig went smoothly, and the Minneapolis-based Gear Daddies received more publicity than a year’s worth of bar concerts. Letterman, amused by the band’s name, repeated it throughout the show.
“The next night, I was singing at my cousin’s wedding,” Zellar says. “I went from playing to a million people on Friday night to 40 relatives on Saturday night.”
Earning a spot on “Letterman” indicates how passionate the core of Gear Daddies’ fans have become toward the heartland rockers. Members of Letterman’s staff like the group and booked them — shocking the Gear Daddies’ major-label record company, PolyGram, which hadn’t pushed for the guest stint.
While record sales for its album, “Billy’s Live Bait,” have been “slow but steady,” the Gear Daddies have received an inordinate number of favorable reviews. The Los Angeles Times’ Robert Hilburn, one of rock music’s most notable critics, picked “Billy’s Live Bait” as the eighth best album of 1990.
Still, the Gear Daddies, who perform in Springfield Saturday night, were the only band on Hilburn’s list not to sell more than 1 million copies of their work. “Billy’s Live Bait” has sold about 40,000 copies. (Springfield’s Appletree Records reports having a few in stock.)
The group’s 1988 independent album, “Let’s Go Scare Al,” also was rereleased by PolyGram in 1990.
“Just to make a living as musicians is a thrill to all of us,” says Zellar, who’s 28. “If someone said four or five years ago, we’d be traveling around playing, it would have blown our minds.”
A third Gear Daddies’ album will be recorded next month at John Cougar Mellencamp’s studio near Bloomington, Ind. Mellencamp’s guitarist Mike Wanchic will produce.
After touring last spring with the BoDeans — whose first album has been compared with the Gear Daddies’ two efforts — the group has played periodic shows. The Gear Daddies’ Springfield appearance completes a four-day swing, which includes two shows in Chicago.
Zellar, who handles most of the band’s songwriting duties, offers personal glimpses of small-town life (he grew up in Austin, Minn.). There’s a range of everything from biting rock — “Time Heals,” written and sung by drummer Billy Dankert — to a novelty song, “I Wanna Drive the Zamboni.”
Although the four-member band is tabbed as a rock group, country influences creep in.
“It’s a weird Catch-22. I’m a big fan of country music, and I don’t mind the association. But if you say `country’, it alienates rock people,” Zellar says. “Then a country fan might come out and say, `This isn’t country.’ I always say there’s a country flavor to the music.”
As for the name? Gear Daddies comes from a fan’s reference to the Beatles years ago — though no one’s sure what it means specifically.
“We had a show, and we needed a name. We said, `We’ll use Gear Daddies until we come up with a better name.’ Pretty soon, we decided that this is our name.
“It caused problems at the beginning because people thought we were a trucker band.”