In 2005, Kansas City drummer Billy Brimblecom was sitting on a couch in his underwear, adjusting to his new regimen of chemotherapy. The phone rang. It was his pal Jason Sudeikis, who had spent a couple seasons writing for “Saturday Night Live” in New York.
“Jason was telling me the news that he’d been invited to join the cast for the last three episodes of the season, and I should come out for his first show. During that conversation, I realized my hair had started to fall out,” Brimblecom recalls.
“It could not have been more cinematic. One of my best friends is telling me the news that the dream had come true. The break had happened. And this is the moment I’m losing my hair.”
Brimblecom’s hair would grow back, but he lost something else permanently: his cancerous left leg.
Flash forward a dozen years, and Brimblecom now runs Steps of Faith, a KC-based nonprofit dedicated to providing care and financial support for amputees. He and Sudeikis remain close friends, and the pair are teaming up for Thundergong! The event gathers famous comedians, notable musicians and loads of percussion. All proceeds will be donated to Steps of Faith.
“We’re going to deliver a concert with all different genres of music,” Sudeikis says. “And it’s going to be ‘Thundergong-ariffic.’ ”
The 42-year-old star will bring some of his best buddies to headline the show. Guests include Sudeikis’ former “SNL” collaborators Will Forte and Fred Armisen.
Musicians Wynonna Judd, Cactus Moser, Krizz Kaliko, the Get Up Kids, Matt Wertz and Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear also perform. KC’s yacht rock tribute Summer Breeze functions as the house band — not surprising, since Brimblecom is the act’s drummer.
So what exactly is a Thundergong?
“I assume it’s a giant gong like Alex Van Halen would have behind him. Or it’s the gong that God and/or Mother Nature hits that makes thunder,” says Sudeikis, calling from Puerto Rico, where he is powering through shooting a thriller called “Driven,” despite being hit by Hurricane Maria mid-filming.
The original idea was a rhythm-related event, taking into account Brimblecom, Armisen and Sudeikis all are accomplished drummers. (Sudeikis originally suggested calling the show “Skins for Limbs.”)
That soon morphed into more of a concert free-for-all hosted by Sudeikis, where a collision of national and local acts showcase their skills at the Uptown Theater.
“They’re all really musical guys,” Brimblecom says of the top-billed funnymen, noting how much musical content Sudeikis, Forte and Armisen produced on “SNL.”
“It’s not like a rock opera where anything that’s spoken will be sung. Not every song is going to be a joke, but there’ll be plenty of funny things. It’s kind of light-hearted and heavy-hearted all at the same time when you look at the spirit of why we are doing this.”
Brimblecom’s country connection goes back to his days spent in Nashville as a session/touring drummer in 2009-16 before moving back to Lenexa.
He met Judd through her husband, Moser, former drummer for the popular country act Highway 101. Right after their marriage in 2012, Moser suffered a motorcycle crash that led to the amputation of his left leg — the same limb as Brimblecom.
Although strangers, Brimblecom called Moser to help him through the ordeal.
“We became fast friends. Eventually, I asked him to join the board of Steps of Faith,” Brimblecom says.
Brimblecom and Sudeikis also became fast friends.
As a senior at Shawnee Mission North High School, Brimblecom got hired to be an improv player at ComedySportz (now ComedyCity) in Kansas City. Sudeikis had already performed there a year since graduating from Shawnee Mission West, and in 1995, they attended the same workshop class for the troupe.
“We had a lot of common interests,” the 40-year-old Brimblecom says. “I was moving to Lawrence to go to school, and Jason was leaving Fort Scott (Community College, where he was recruited to play basketball). “We’d do shows almost every night of the month, and I’d stay at his parents’ house.”
Sudeikis says, “I never had a car. So anyone who lived in Lawrence that was kind enough to go through Overland Park could pick me up, then head downtown.”
That honor typically fell to Brimblecom, who Sudeikis first remembers as being “a guy with long hair in a ponytail who was super funny.”
Two years after they met, Sudeikis moved to Chicago to study comedy. He ended up in ImprovOlympic and the touring company of Second City.
Meanwhile, Brimblecom shifted his career toward music, eventually playing in the Lawrence/Kansas City bands Stick, the Creature Comforts and Blackpool Lights.
Sudeikis was at Second City Las Vegas when he was discovered by “SNL.”
“Obviously, there are people who are totally brilliant who never get that break,” Brimblecom says. “But with Jason, I thought, ‘This is how it should go.’ You would hope that level of success would come to someone with that much talent.”
Around that time, Brimblecom assumed the intensifying pain he’d been experiencing was nerve damage sustained in a 1999 car accident. But in 2005, he learned it was cancer. Ewing’s sarcoma, specifically — a so-called “killer tumor” that needed to be removed along with the leg it was in.
“The gallows humor is that God did this to Billy to even him out. He was too good on the drums with two legs, so he had to make it interesting,” Sudeikis says. “Billy is one of these people who’s put on earth who has almost too many gifts and not enough trees to put them under.”
Sudeikis admits he was never scared for his friend. He knew cancer wasn’t going to win this battle.
“Outside of the talent, he’s a real tough son of a gun. Shawnee Mission North — he’s the same kind of hard-nosed energy like I remember their high school basketball players had,” he says.
In 2006, Sudeikis helped Brimblecom with a fundraiser to buy a more permanent prosthetic leg because insurance didn’t cover the $30,000 cost. So the pair put on two RecordBar shows that blended comedy and music, not unlike Thundergong!
They raised $40,000.
“I went from walking real slow to walking sort of normal,” Brimblecom says.
That’s similar to the overall game plan he has with Steps of Faith.
“Even though we’ve got big friends, we’re still a tiny charity,” he explains.
He notes 500 people in America lose a limb each day. Just as the 2006 benefit personally helped Brimblecom restore most of his mobility, he’s hoping Thundergong! makes that a possibility for scores of others.
“It’s simply going to be a good time,” Brimblecom says. “There are a lot of moving pieces. It’s overwhelming. But the thing I’d like to stress the most is there hasn’t been a lot of help with Steps of Faith until now. Just because we have these celebrity relationships, this is the first time an event of this scale is really happening. It’s a huge leap forward.”
One faithful step at a time.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
The Steps of Faith benefit is 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway. Tickets are $55 (includes two drink tickets); VIP packages start at $500 and include four lower balcony tickets, free food and drink at the VIP bar and floor access. More information at stepsoffaithfoundation.org