It’s been so long since the Gear Daddies performed at First Avenue, many folks have forgotten how often the “Zamboni” novelty hitmakers and Minnesota favorites played there back in the day. But not frontman Martin Zellar, who offered a pretty good anecdote to remind us.
“I [kid] you not, they even had us open for the Fat Boys,” the lead Daddy remembered.
“We were there so much — and we were relatively easygoing — we just became their go-to band for a while. Even for something like that.”
What a ballcap-wearing country band from Austin, Minn., was doing opening for a gold-chain-adorned rap act from Brooklyn in the late ’80s is as much an odd curiosity as is the fact that the Gear Daddies have not played First Ave since 1996.
That 19-year hiatus is about to end Friday, when the quartet kicks off a three-night run at the nightclub that has long borne the band’s name on its wall of stars. Friday’s show was to be one in a series of concerts marking the 25th anniversary of the group’s best-known record, “Billy’s Live Bait.” Nights 2 and 3 were quickly added when their predecessors sold out.
“We just really didn’t think our fans wanted to go there anymore,” Zellar said, likening the club to a scene-of-the-crime hangout its aging audience didn’t want to revisit.
“That shows you what we know.”
Present-day First Ave bookers actually wondered if the band and club had a falling out at some point, but Zellar said no. In fact, he singled out the venue’s late-’80s booker Chrissie Dunlap as “right up there with David Letterman for making things happen for us,” referring to a 1991 appearance on the soon-to-retire TV host’s show.
One other reason is that the Gear Daddies themselves went on hiatus after 1992 (the ’96 First Ave gig was a one-off benefit). Starting in the early-’00s, the quartet started playing a few times a year, landing everywhere from the Fine Line and Medina around the holidays to the Minnesota Zoo and Target Field’s Skyline Music Festivals in summer.
“We definitely don’t call them reunion shows anymore,” Zellar said. “We keep doing them because people keep turning up, and we just really enjoy hanging out with each other.
“We started this band before any of us had any lives. The band was our life. So being around each other is like reverting back to being 18, 19 years old.”
Now the dad of some 18, 19-year-old boys about to start college in Minnesota, Zellar and his wife still reside in the historic (and safe) town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He continues to write and perform and hopes to record another album this summer.
The other Gear Daddies mostly stayed put. Bassist Nick Ciola has played in all of Zellar’s post-Daddies bands (the Hardways, Neil!). Pedal-steel wiz and guitarist Randy Broughten gigs with Trailer Trash and the Cactus Blossoms. Drummer Billy Dankert went to school and made his own album.
As much fun as they’ve had together of late, Zellar expects this weekend’s shows to be especially memorable.
“I’m thrilled, honestly,” he said. “I went to so many shows there and know who all has played there. Anytime the screen in front of the stage rolls up and you’re the one behind it, it’s an unbeatable feeling.”
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