By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The 15th edition of the Sleepless Nights benefit concert paying tribute to country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons brings an array of artists to the Chapel in San Francisco Sunday afternoon.

First organized back in 1999 by musician Eric Shea — then fronting his SF cosmic roots-rock outfit Mover — the evening featured that band alongside LA country-rock favorites Beachwood Sparks and Sacramento’s Sex 66 among others interpreting some of the best-known songs written by Parsons during his stint with influential late ’60s groups the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Bros. as well his own short-lived solo career.

Mixing tear-in-your-beer honky tonk with flashes of swaggering, soulful rock indebted to the Rolling Stones (Parsons was well known as a running buddy of Keith Richards during the era), the songwriter was a member of the Byrds, helping make the band’s seminal Sweethearts of the Rodeo album an early venture into country-tinged folk rock prior to splitting off with fellow Byrd Chris Hillman to found the Flying Burrito Bros.

Though Parsons would only work on the band’s first two albums — their landmark 1969 debut The Gilded Palace of Sin and the following year’s Burrito Deluxe — the band further refined a country-rock sound that became a blueprint for much of the music that would emerge from LA’s Laurel Canyon in the new decade, exerting a heavy influence on the Eagles, Linda Rondstadt, Poco and others.

When Parsons left the Bros., he initially spent more time partying with Richards and the Rolling Stones (he hung with the band during a British tour and recording sessions for Exiles on Main Street in France) than he did on his solo career. He would eventually return to Los Angeles, where Hillman introduced him to then unknown country songbird Emmylou Harris who became a key member of Parsons’s new band, the Fallen Angels.

While his solo debut G.P. in 1972 and follow-up effort Grievous Angel received positive reviews, the albums sold poorly, despite the obvious chemistry the songwriter and his band would exhibit during live performances. Parsons would die of an overdose on morphine and tequila while celebrating the completion of Grievous Angel during a desert vacation near Joshua Tree. His music would live on with the influence heard in the roots-minded sounds of X, the Blasters and the Mekons as well as early R.E.M. and the music of ’90s alternative country disciples like Uncle Tupelo (and its subsequent offshoot bands Wilco and Son Volt), Freakwater and Old 97’s.

Sleepless Nights XV

Inspired by the annual gatherings held in Joshua Tree paying tribute to Parsons, Shea would make the Sleepless Nights tribute concerts a yearly benefit show at the Great American Music Hall for over a decade, raising funds for a variety of causes. While he would take a break from the benefits to help stage several similar tribute shows playing the music of Byrds founder and songwriter Gene Clark, an invitation from Bay Area promoter Britt Govea to bring Sleepless Nights back for this Sunday afternoon show benefiting Larkin Street Youth Services at the Chapel.

In addition to Shea’s roots-minded pub rock band Sweet Chariot — who put out their first album Lean Into the Breeze on Who Can You Trust? Records, the label for Shea’s other band, proto-metal/skate punk quartet Hot Lunch — this edition of Sleepless nights will also feature local alt-country legend Paula Frazer and her group Tarnation, swampy garage rockers Whateverglades, Mojave Desert-based outfit Starlight Cleaning Co., Oakland crew the Sunset Canyoneers, songwriter Noelle Fiore and her group the Deserters, SF singer/songwriter Graham Norwood, Half Moon Bay-based outlaw country band Bar Fight and O and Shea, a duo featuring former Richmond Sluts frontman Shea Roberts and his wife Okoppes.
Sleepless Nights XV – A Tribute to the Music of Gram Parsons
Sunday, Feb. 9, 4 p.m. $20
The Chapel