Thunderground Emerges as Main Nerve for Christian Music on Campus
Story by Michael Ferraresi
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
The belly of Thunder Alley used to be more like a concrete clubhouse than a nightclub for live music.
Yet just three months after its first show, the Thunderground venue has fetched rave reviews in spite of some early challenges converting the basement into a space for intimate Christian performances.
A Dec. 3 show by Group 1 Crew, known for its eclectic hip-hop, caps Thunderground’s slate of six fall dates. Attendance since August has varied from as few as 100 mellow-minded people for acoustic-oriented Todd Agnew and Jason Gray to a raucous crowd of nearly 1,000 for rapper Andy Mineo following his Unashamed Tour performance with Lecrae at GCU Arena earlier this month.
Thunderground also hosted a student play and improv comedy show this fall, though its focus undoubtedly will remain on drawing top-billed Christian musicians to GCU. Most shows will remain free to all GCU students on a first-come, first-served basis. However, event planners experimented this fall by renting the venue to an outside promoter for a ticketed event for the Christian ska band The O.C. Supertones. The encouraging turnout proved non-GCU fans, like those from other universities, would pay to get closer to their bands at Thunderground.
Initially, it took some finesse to draw some of the top names in Christian music to a place known more for its pingpong and pool tables than a main stage.
Scott Fehrenbacher, a GCU senior vice president and director for faith-based development, recalled shepherding Mineo to Thunder Alley for a soundcheck prior to his Thunderground show. At first, the rapper seemed taken aback at having agreed to play at a bowling alley. But after the sold-out Arena show, Mineo performed again — for several hundred students in a jam-packed Thunderground.
|Christian Music Heaven|
|Click here for a slideshow of Thunderground performance photos by GCU photographer Darryl Webb. For more information on upcoming shows, go to TheThunderground.com.|
“It looks so different at night when it’s all blacked out and the place is crammed,” Fehrenbacher said. “It comes down to the artists going back and saying, ‘That was a great place, you guys need check this out.’”
Mineo signed on for a January encore with fellow hip-hop artist Propaganda during the two-day Canyon Music Festival, Fehrenbacher said. He added that other spring performances would include Thousand Foot Krutch, Jars of Clay, GCU’s own Moriah Peters, and a Christian electronic music rave (perhaps with purple glowsticks?) led by Family Force 5.
More than any traditional marketing plan, the feedback from major artists such as Mineo has been invaluable to growing the Thunderground brand via the Web.
“Crowds like this are some of my favorites,” Mineo told GCU Today earlier this year. “It’s an opportunity to engage the fans. You can see on their faces when they like or don’t like something. I try to be approachable, and after these shows you can hang out with people.”
Singer-songwriter Jason Castro tweeted after his Sept. 19 Thunderground show, “…think tonight was my favorite show to date,” and thanked GCU for hosting him.
Fehrenbacher said GCU is considering covering the bowling alley lanes to provide a more comfortable standing-room space for shows, though he and others were pleased with such solid sound from “inside a concrete box.”
Planners also are considering soundproofing or insulating the Thunderground space to avoid ambient sound from the top level of Thunder Alley.
GCU also is investing in sound, lighting and stage equipment to make Thunderground more of a permanent performance space. Currently, GCU rents about half its equipment and staff borrows other gear from Arena chapel services.
Campus audio/video supervisor John Berkheimer said the venue can be challenging to prevent audio feedback due to the “live” nature of the space with such hard walls amplifying the music. Still, seeing the performances move roomfuls of people is gratifying.
“I like that we started with nothing but a blank room,” Berkheimer said. “It literally starts with nothing and falls together around 5 p.m. those days.”
GCU also has a newly created student organization dedicated to Christian music and Thunderground. “The Tour” caters to students who’ve discovered GCU through the Rock & Worship Roadshow or other Christian music events.
Andie Valenzuela, a freshman vice president of The Tour, said the group grew immediately to nearly 40 students. Benefits of membership include front-row spots at Thunderground shows and the opportunity to meet artists such as Lecrae on campus.
“You’re in reaching distance, you’re able to communicate with them and take pictures with them,” Valenzuela said.
Planners said that was the idea — getting GCU students closer to the music, and deeper into the messages of their favorite performers.
Contact Michael Ferraresi at 639.7030 or [email protected].