Eric Shea, singer for local bands Hot Lunch and Sweet Chariot, put together Sleepless Nights ten years ago to pay tribute to and recognize the influence of the legend that is Gram Parsons. The show returns to Great American Music Hall this Saturday
Shea took the time to discuss the longevity of the event, his love/hate relationship with Parsons and why dream lineups are like fantasy football, read on.
Can you give a little history of the idea and talk about the first few years of Sleepless Nights? Did you ever think it would go on for this long?
Well when I started Sleepless Nights it was kind of by accident. My old band Mover was starting to be really influenced by Gram’s solo albums as well as his work with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. So I contacted the folks out at Joshua Tree who used to put on the annual Gram Fest to see if we could play the next one, but they never got back to me. At the same time, there was a growing number of twangy rock bands in both Northern and Southern California—enough to make me think that it wouldn’t be too hard to put one on in San Francisco. The very first Sleepless Nights had awesome performers like Beachwood Sparks, Elisa Randazzo and Miranda Lee Richards, to name a few. Back then I had no idea that it would have lasted 10 years, but I feel really lucky that it has.
Why Gram Parsons? Were you always a fan or was it a later in life love affair?
In my mid 20s, a friend turned me on to his music and legend. I loved how he influenced so many people but managed to stay behind the scenes. Then as I got older and learned more about him, it was evident that he didn’t want to be the man behind the bands. He wanted to be a rock star like everyone else. I kind of hate rock stars, so my feelings about Gram Parsons the person became very conflicted with my love for his music.
He was a rich kid and a Rolling Stones groupie who used his trust-fund money to hang out with famous rockstars. From what I understand he was also a bad drunk and partied so stupidly hard that it killed him at the young age of 26. He couldn’t even wait until he was 27 like a real ‘rock star.’ But he was also an unarguably awesome songwriter who changed the game in so many ways. As I get older my appreciation for that contrast keeps growing.
Have you always had this tribute at The Great American Music Hall? In my opinion, it is easily one of the best sounding rooms in the city, what happens if you outgrow the venue—where to next?
The Great American Music Hall is easily my all-time favorite venue. It has the best sound, the best staff and there’s so much San Francisco history that haunts its beauty. We started Sleepless Nights at Slim’s but to put this kind of event on in a classically regal ballroom atmosphere just makes more sense. Admittedly, I prefer how we are able to keep it relatively underground. I would rather pack my favorite San Francisco venue once a year to benefit a worthy cause than have to blow it out and pay some famous people to play. This year we’re doing it for Hickory Wind Ranch – A sober living environment for men and women founded by Gram’s daughter Polly Parsons.
You play in a number of bands around town that aren’t necessarily country, do you feel the Parsons influence in each project you are a part of?
Honestly, I’d have to say that Gram Parsons’ music only influences a fifth of my twangy band Sweet Chariot. We’re equally into Thin Lizzy, Ernie Graham, Karen Dalton and more modern bands like Vetiver. My heavy rock band Hot Lunch is totally void of anything Gram related. We’re more interested in blurring the lines between proto metal, early European prog and old school skate-punk.
Talk a little about the others involved in the night: who is performing, who else helps organize, etc.
The folks from Great American Music Hall have always been a big help as well as my good friend Doug who designed some amazing posters. And my pal Peggy Hanson from Cypress Cowboy always hooks us up with amazing T-Shirts and patches. I’m really excited to have Chuck Prophet and Stephanie Finch return to Sleepless Nights. They’re the closest thing to Gram and Emmylou in my little bubble. But I’m also stoked that East Bay Grease is playing for the first time – they’re like a supergroup of local luminaries. And it just wouldn’t be Sleepless Nights without having Red Meat headline.
If you could be in a dream band with Gram Parsons, who else would you want to be a part of the magic?
Wow, that’s a good question. I don’t know if I’d want be in a band with Gram because he’d probably bail on one of our shows to hang out with Keith Richards in France. But if I could hypothetically record with the guy I’d also have to throw in Bobby Charles, Levon Helm, Link Wray and John Entwistle with a little vocal help from Colin Blunstone and Karen Carpenter. But thinking like that’s really no better than playing fantasy football.
The 10th Annual Sleepless Nights – A Gram Parsons Tribute happens this Saturday, August 27th, at The Great American Music Hall. Doors are at 8pm and the show starts at 9pm. Tickets are $13 and performers include: Red Meat, Chuck Prophet & Stephanie Finch, Sweet Chariot, East Bay Grease, BigEagle, Gypsy Moonlight Band, & Paula Frazer