After snagging the Foo Fighters last year for Thundergong, an annual fundraiser for Kansas City’s Steps of Faith Foundation, organizers Jason Sudeikis and Steps of Faith executive director Billy Brimblecom Jr. — to put it into Ted Lasso parlance — now believe that anything is possible.
The Ted Lasso creator and Brimblecom, who have been friends for more than 25 years and both grew up in Kansas City, will hold the fifth annual Thundergong this Saturday. The virtual concert will feature Sudeikis returning as host, as well as Michael McDonald, Sammy Hagar, Counting Crows, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Wynonna, Fred Armisen, Waxahatchee, Will Forte, Dashboard Confessional, Lecrae and more. Steps of Faith provides funding for limbs to amputees.
The fundraisers had their informal genesis in 2006 when Sudeikis and friends held a benefit for their buddy Brimblecom, who had lost his lower leg to cancer and his insurance only covered half of the $60,000 cost of a prosthesis.
Steps of Faith launched in 2013 and officially held its first Thundergong benefit in 2017, featuring Wynonna, Sudeikis, Forte, Armisen and other performers, including Brimblecom’s band Summer Breeze, and three amputee drummers accompanying Sudeikis on Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” It has expanded its scope each year, with past performers including Blake Shelton, Chance the Rapper, Camila Cabello, Tom Morello, Brandi Carlile, Ben Harper and Lyle Lovett.
“The Foos were at the top,”says Brimblecom in a Zoom interview with Sudeikis and Billboard. And they had been on the wish list since 2017 when organizers held a spot open for them just in case their tour bus could make a stop-over between gigs in South Dakota and Kansas.
Last year, because of the pandemic, Thundergong was held virtually instead of in person. This year, the plan had been to return to an in-person event at Kansas City’s Uptown Theater and then stream the show, but the organizations switched to the streaming format when it became clear that it worked logistically better and presented more opportunities for talent. It will stream for free.
“We were having a hard time confirming artists — not because they weren’t interested, but because some shows were moved outside, getting canceled. In many ways this year was harder than last year, and last year was hard. Concerts weren’t happening, period,” Brimblecom says. “This year is a really weird in-between so we felt like [streaming] was the best way to go about it for hopefully the last time.” Sudeikis, who is in Los Angeles writing season 3 of Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, taped his portions at the Uptown Theater last weekend along with some of his friends, in front of a small live audience, including sponsors, doctors, Steps of Faith clients and other invited guests.
This year, Thundergong has added Mandolin as a streaming partner, joining returning partners Facebook and LiveXLive, as well as Thundergong.org. The additional platform, plus the global success of Ted Lasso, has Brimblecom hopeful that this year’s event will bring in at least $500,000 and 500,000 viewers, up from last year’s $400,000 and 300,000 viewers. Cumulatively, the previous four Thundergongs have raised $1 million.
“Jason and I are doing this because we’re friends, but we’re both aware that his level of celebrity from 2017 to now helps get people in the door. That’s the whole point,” Brimblecom says. “So I feel like all of that skews the math to where it will be bigger and better.”
That fame has its meta moments. “When we announced Sammy Hagar, the next think you know on his Instagram he puts a clip of Ted Lasso on there where we namechecked him from the first season and then that hits the Ted Lasso fanbase and it just spreads out,” Sudeikis says. “What’s neat about what we’ve tried to do with Ted Lasso is promote this vibration that exists very much in the DNA of Thundergong and exists in Kansas City.”
While Sudeikis’ Ted Lasso showed up last year to turn in a passionate version of Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience,” he will be missing from this year’s fest, said Sudeikis, who was sporting a scruffy beard during the interview as opposed to Lasso’s well-groomed bushy mustache. “He’ll definitely be back and his spirit is there,” Sudeikis says.
Most of the participants are friends of Sudeikis’ and Brimblecom’s. “I’d say 75% are one degree or no degree of separation,” Sudeikis says. “Working at [Saturday Night Live] for 10 years, we had everybody coming through. That’s how we got Foo Fighters last year, Chance the Rapper, those are all through my meeting those guys at SNL. Ben Harper, our kids are friends. What we’re looking for is someone we’re super excited about as fans, but also has like a vibe of our friends. We haven’t not invited anybody because they’re turkeys or something like that, but it’s something you try to be discerning about because you want people coming in with the right heart space.”
A number of the artists have personal connections to the cause, especially Wynonna and her husband/drummer/musician Cactus Moser, who lost his lower leg in a motorcycle accident in 2012. Moser also sits on Steps of Faith’s board of directors. This year, one reason the Counting Crows are participating is to honor one of their crew members who had all four of her limbs partially amputated, Brimblecom says.
As for future years, the Foos’ participation has given Brimblecom and Sudeikis permission to dream even bigger. Among the artists remaining on the wish list? Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, Chuck D, Flavor Flav and Garth Brooks.
Above all, the plan is to keep Thundergong going in the spirit it has possessed since its start. “It’s a fundraiser,” says Brimblecom, “but we’re doing the thing we love the most, which is being silly and making each other laugh and playing music.”