Thundergong! Went Virtual In 2020 To Advocate For People With Disabilities

Over the last year, people have found unique ways to support the organizations they love even if they can’t do so in person. On November 14, musicians and artists from across the U.S. gathered together for a virtual benefit, Thundergong!, celebrating the Kansas City-based nonprofit Steps of Faith, which works to provide prosthetic limbs to people who need them, since the cost is often prohibitive, especially since insurance might not cover some or even all of their cost.

The online format was a change for Thundergong!, an annual event that usually thrives on in-person collaboration. Each year, actor and comedian Jason Sudeikis travels back to his native Kansas City to host the music- and comedy-filled celebration in front of a live audience with a variety of special guests. Sudeikis made the trek again this year, although the experience was far different: He filmed interstitial bits in an empty theater live to tape, bouncing comedic ideas and jokes off a small musical crew and his long-time friend, Steps of Faith’s executive director, Billy Brimblecom.

Sudeikis and Brimblecom always work in tandem to ensure Thundergong! succeeds, although sequencing and scheduling a virtual event did pose logistical challenges this year. “I’ve come the closest to producing a TV show, but not a live TV show. You know, I’ve worked on one, SNL, but I didn’t produce that thing. Lorne [Michaels] doesn’t need my help — yet,” Sudeikis says lightly. “And so it was really about running order, and how much time do we really need and want this to be, thinking of people at home and empathizing with them.”

The pair’s attention to detail certainly paid off, as Thundergong! came off without a hitch. Ben Harper performed his song “Please Me Like You Want To” and a cover of Bob Marley’s “High Tide” as a stripped-down duet with Jack Johnson. Lyle Lovett turned in an understated “Natural Forces,” while Nathaniel Rateliff turned into a pair of songs, including a lovely “All Or Nothing” on acoustic guitar. Huddled around a crackling campfire, Brandi Carlile also performed two tunes, her own “The Eye” and a stunning cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses.”

A few acts chose to plug in, including Tom Morello, who contributed an electrified version of “On Your Own” filmed from a pre-lockdown show. The Get Up Kids raced through “The Advocate” from the familiar confines of Kansas City’s venerable indie rock club recordBar, while Fastball beamed in from elsewhere with a two-song set: “The Help Machine” and a jazzy take on their ’90s hit “The Way.”

That the benefit ran so smoothly also reflects also the decades-long friendship between Sudeikis and Brimblecom. The pair initially met years ago in an improv comedy class, and quickly bonded over humor and a shared outlook on life. Brimblecom was known as a talented drummer — in fact, he inspired Sudeikis to buy a drumkit instead of a car “much to my parents’ chagrin,” the actor laughs — and cheered on his friend’s ambitions. “His love of music really helped shift and expand my tastes,” Sudeikis says. “He was always very, very supportive of what I was doing. He always saw something more in me than maybe I could see at a specific time. It’s been really very moving.”

Sudeikis went on to spend a decade with Saturday Night Live and is currently starring in Ted Lasso. Brimblecom, meanwhile, parlayed his love of jazz and hard rock into stints with bands. In the ’90s, he was briefly in a Lawrence, Kansas, combo, Stick, that had a near-miss on a major label, and later co-founded Blackpool Lights with Get Up Kids guitarist Jim Suptic. In addition, he’s also been a touring drummer with synth-rock band theSTART and singer-songwriter Katie Herzig, and currently plays in a Yacht Rock-centered tribute act called Summer Breeze.

Drumming and music proved to be sustaining forces during a time when he was faced with some serious medical issues. In early 2005, a week after Blackpool Lights played their first show, Brimblecom discovered the periodic ankle pain he was experiencing was due to Ewing’s Sarcoma, a form of cancer. After beginning treatment — he recorded drum tracks for Blackpool Lights’ debut album during chemotherapy — it was determined that the best course of action to save his life was to amputate his left leg a bit above the knee.

By 2006, Brimblecom’s health had stabilized enough for him to get his first permanent prosthetic leg. However, like many people in his position, finances became an issue: His insurance at the time would only cover half the cost of the prosthetic, meaning he needed to raise $30,000 to cover the shortfall. In response, Sudeikis, his Blackpool Lights bandmates, and others threw a Thundergong!-like benefit at the recordBar that raised the needed funds. “And then the next day I said to my girlfriend, my wife now, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if in a year we raised the money for somebody else who needs that?'” Brimblecom says. “Well, we didn’t do that. But I never forgot that.”

Fast forward to 2013. Brimblecom was by this point in Nashville and making a living as a musician, but realized his touring-heavy lifestyle was no longer ideal after he and his wife welcomed their first child. Luckily, fate intervened: At an appointment, Brimblecom’s prosthetist asked him to talk to another patient who was being fitted for his first prosthetic leg, as the specialist thought the musician’s success and insights would provide invaluable perspective.

“I talked to the guy for five minutes, and I could see the hope in his eyes,” Brimblecom says. “And it was incredible. I left that day and told [my wife] about it because I wished that could be my job. To be able to speak that language to that guy. Not like, ‘I can only imagine what you’re going through’ — it’s like, ‘I know what you’re going through, and I’m telling you you’re going to get better.'”

As it happens, this same prosthetist once again became a connector. He introduced Brimblecom to his boss, who had previously established a 501c3 to help patients without health insurance pay for needed prosthetics. After some productive conversations, Brimblecom became executive director of that nonprofit, which became known as Steps of Faith. Today, he admits there was a steep learning curve to the job, but the skills he learned via his music career — including a particularly strong ability to connect with other people and build friendships and relationships—prepared him well.

“Being in a band is a team sport,” Brimblecom says. “It’s a partnership, and you can’t do it alone. And I love to collaborate — and that’s really important. I was often the guy who was the tour manager before we could afford to pay somebody 100 bucks a week to be our tour manager. I was comfortable talking to people, with promoters or booking agents.

“When you do performing arts together, it can quickly foster really strong, intimate friendships, because you are putting your tail on the line together,” he adds. “Performing in front of an audience can feel dangerous and terrifying, and it can be really bonding.”

Appropriately, Steps of Faith currently has two other full-time employees in addition to Brimblecom, including one of his Blackpool Lights bandmates, Jim Suptic. The latter’s road to working at Steps of Faith was somewhat circuitous. He earned a geology degree during a period of Get Up Kids inactivity, but decided against a job in that field in favor of keeping his schedule flexible enough for music. However, a part-time gig helping out Steps of Faith eventually turned into a full-time gig — a position for which Suptic was well-suited, thanks to his existing relationship with Brimblecom and their shared musical background. 

”Being in a band with Billy and writing songs together, and that creative collaboration where you’re bouncing things off [each other] — sometimes a bad idea, you don’t take things personally. You can’t take criticism so personally, You learn that being an artist of anything. And we totally have translated that to this job. We’re really good collaborators.” Suptic also praises the caliber of people who’ve been brought into his world because of Steps of Faith. “A friend of mine always said that people find good people,” he says. “And I feel like that’s been very true with this job, with all the people who have been helping with Thundergong!, [and] just [being] getting connected with really cool and creative people in Kansas City area. It’s been awesome.”

The idea of community comes up in multiple interviews about Thundergong!, which is understandable. Not only do businesses in Kansas City support the benefit via sponsorships and promotion, but Thundergong! itself has a core group of comedians and musicians that consistently lends support. Sudeikis especially is moved by how willing people are to give. “When we ask for people to help — I mean, even people that we’ve asked that haven’t been able to pull it off, have always been like, ‘Oh, I love this idea. You know, maybe next year, you know, let me know, next year.'”

One repeat performer is a Kansas City-based musician, Madisen Ward, who at the 2020 Thundergong performed a cover of The Five Stairsteps’ “O-o-h Child” with Sudeikis. Ward usually records and performs incisive folk with his mother under the name Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, although due to the events of 2020, the pair are being careful to social distance. However, this summer, Ward improvised a local tour of backyards with some musician friends that provided some joy and solace during a fraught time. “You could tell people just wanted to hear anything,” he says. “You could play the wrong note, and it’s like, ‘Thank God — human connection.'”

Ward’s ingenuity — and recognizing the powerful connections that can be made with bold ideas — makes him a natural for Thundergong!. “I told someone recently, my mom and I have always been kind of more of a makeshift kind of band,” he says. “We’re just throwing stuff at the wall, and that’s what we’ve always done. We’re living in a makeshift time right now. Everything right now going on may shift. It’s just, ‘How am I going to either endure or adapt, recalibrate? How am I going to figure out how this business is going to go forward?’ And some people are coming up with some incredible ideas.”

In fact, Thundergong!’s spirit of experimentation and creativity wasn’t diminished at all in 2020. Just ask actor-comedian Will Forte, who checked in from New Zealand — he was there working on a Netflix show, Sweet Tooth — with an elaborate song parody of Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind,” called “She Likes My Wind,” that he originally wrote for his fiancée. The video exudes cheesy, slo-mo ’80s music video vibes, as Forte poses and preens on a rocky beach while wearing a flowing white-blonde wig and an open shirt.

Forte was happy to contribute this clip. “It’s all basically a bunch of people supporting Billy, because Billy is the sweetest, most wonderful person,” he says about Thundergong!. “And he’s so passionate about this, and it makes you passionate about it, too. Then when you get there [to the event], and you meet some of the people who have been recipients of the Steps of Faith donations, and have been able to get prosthetics through the program, and you see how it changed their lives, then that just makes you double your efforts.”

The 2020 edition of Thundergong! ended with a late addition to the lineup, Foo Fighters, who filmed a typically fiery version of “The Walk” for the show. Prior to the band’s performance, Brimblecom and Sudeikis reminisced about their long-time Foos fandom — they once roadtripped to St. Louis for a gig — and how the band came to be at the benefit. Their easygoing rapport and conversation was charming, but it clearly meant a lot to have the band end the show.

As Brimblecom relayed in his interview, he once said in so many words to Sudeikis, the two of them working together to pool their resources and passion created an event that’s bigger than themselves.

“It’s a very profound thing, in this day and age, to celebrate the act of caring about people you may never meet,” Sudeikis says. “And it is a big line in the sand, I think, for the American experience. And this show walks on the side of, ‘We do that.’ And so when people care about something so much, they might willing to do even more work and do even more of this, and we go and we go bigger, and we go stronger.”

Donate to Steps of Faith here.