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The Church of the Flaming Funk explores incendiary media

  • Author: Debra McKinney
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published March 13, 2010

In a conventional Eagle River neighborhood -- at a tired, two-story rental with peeling paint and tapestry-draped windows -- about a dozen friends, all in their 20s, are gathered to make some fun on what might otherwise be a dull Tuesday night. It's the dead of winter, it's getting kind of late, and they're out in the driveway jumping rope.

With a guy on each end doing the twirling, a few take turns rocking to and fro before lunging into the middle. Over the head, under the feet, over the head, under the fe ... Oops. Stumble. Peals of laughter.

Just some good clean fun on a cold winter's night. Except that the jump rope is on fire.

Fire toys are big in this circle of friends. There's the flaming whip, the flaming umbrella, the flaming helmet, the flaming machetes, the flaming techno-monster monkey with burning eyes and a blazing brain that doubles as a lawn ornament when not on duty.

"Fire good," these guys say in Neanderthal.

Fire is good because this is headquarters of the Church of the Flaming Funk.

Although they could talk up a vortex on the deeper meaning of it all, simply put, the church is a funk-rock band with a visual-percussion section made up of fire performers.

They spin fire around. They wield it like an ethereal paintbrush. They tilt their heads back, open wide and eat it up. Although a few church members are serious musicians who write and play their own music, every one of them has a special fondness for Kevlar, white gas and the rapid oxidation of combustibles.

And yes, their landlord knows.

Maybe you caught these guys at the Fire & Ice show at Town Square on New Year's Eve. Lots of fire performers there, from fire-eaters to majorettes with blazing batons. These guys performed on a stage in the middle of Fifth Avenue, between the Alaska Fire Circus and Jim Kerr, who started juggling fire torches long before these guys were even born.

They were the ones with arguably the greatest hair, heavy on dreadlocks, some in colors more commonly found in fruit salad. They were the ones who whirled, swiveled, hula-hooped, juggled and otherwise got overly friendly with fire to recorded music of their own making, the ones where the guy kept setting his suit on fire, then brushed it off like dandruff with bare hands.

"Safety first" is the church mantra. Safety towels and a fire extinguisher are always nearby. And when they say "watch my back," they mean that literally.

"Asparagus" is the code word for "put me out please."

These guys know what they're doing. If they didn't, they'd have a lot less hair. Still, now and then a fire kebob gets away from them.

"We catch on fire all the time but there's kind of a five-second rule," Celeste Kelly says.

Knowing the difference between a thirst quencher and a jar of fuel is also extremely important.

"If anybody sees me start to drink this, remind me that it's gas," Connor Huntington says.

You should see him play with knives.

Back home at church headquarters, he goes into the kitchen, pulls open a drawer and spreads an array of sharp implements out on the counter top.

Pick three, he says.

A filet knife, a serrated bread knife and a meat cleaver make the cut.

"Everybody loves the cleaver," he says, as he prepares to juggle them.

"OK. You guys want to step back?"

BLOW STUFF UP

Huntington, who plays bass with the band, is one of five church members and four large dogs who live at the Eagle River headquarters, a place where the two species share the couch, a place of homemade music, vegetarian and vegan family dinners and political discussions that would singe the eyebrows off the Rev. Jerry Prevo.

For Brandon Shaw, who plays guitar and drums, and writes and sings with the band, the music part comes first, then the fire spinning. And even with that, it's the sound he's drawn to the most.

Whoooooooowh.

Since, for obvious reasons, fire doesn't fly for indoor venues, the Church of the Flaming Funk has an indoor incarnation: Blackbody Radiation and the Ultraviolet Catastrophe. Same music, most of the same toys, only instead of being on fire, the toys and the performers glow in the dark under black lights.

Fire spinning or fire dancing can be traced back to several ancient cultures. Most attribute its resurgence and modern twist to the Burning Man festival, held every summer on a stretch of Nevada desert that for one week becomes a city of 40,000, some 90 miles northwest of Reno.

Flaming Funk members have been making the pilgrimage to Burning Man the past couple of years, once in an honest-to-god retired church bus, a 1969 International, with an exhaust system held together with coat hangers and tin cans. It was rather an ordeal since the bus broke down all along the way. But that's how Sarah Meyer got good at spinning a staff. While others put their heads together under the hood, she used the time to practice, practice, practice.

Several of the dozen or so members of the church started spinning with the Alaska Fire Circus. They broke off a couple of years ago to form their own troupe, one more choreographed, with their own music as the driving force. Aside from Burning Man, the Trapper Creek Bluegrass Festival is their Mecca. And despite momentarily setting the stage on fire twice, they keep getting invited to perform.

Huntington's personal relationship with fire goes way back, beyond the statute of limitations anyway, when he had the unfortunate timing of entering teen years in Eagle River about the same time the local skating rink and movie theater closed down, and the only cheap thrill going was gasoline.

No, not for huffing. Something way more artistic.

"We used to blow stuff up," he says. "All the time."

Stuff like abandoned cars along the Knik River.

So when he saw his first fire spinning -- people playing with fire in a way that drew an audience instead of the cops -- he knew it was for him.

Music and fire spinning may have brought this group of friends together, but they come from widely varied backgrounds.

With a dad in the oil business, brothers Brandon and Alex Shaw grew up largely abroad, in Venezuela, Nigeria, and a boarding school in Switzerland.

Faye Mickleson, stilt walker and costume designer, grew up studying ballet and riding horses in Palmer.

Huntington grew up across the street. His mom, attorney Karla Huntington, is a big Flaming Funk fan.

As for day jobs, Huntington, who has orange dreads and makes a point of wearing mismatched socks, works as a receptionist at a law firm.

Celeste Kelly makes and sells hula hoops and teaches hooping workshops through her business Sparticle Hoops.

Kristen "Kage" Johnson just wrapped up organic chemistry and will be applying to nursing school.

A couple of the others work in a pizza joint. A couple more are unemployed.

But all of them expect to be busier than usual for a while. That's because Katy Parrish of KACN-TV wants them to provide local content for GCI cable Channel 95, GCI statewide cable Channel 1 and over-air Anchorage Channel 38..

Plans include building a wall of TV sets as a backdrop for their shoots, since they just happen to have a stockpile. That's because Sarah Meyer had visions of building a TVgloo in the backyard, an igloo made of TV sets where, like in "A Clockwork Orange," once it's done with you, you can never watch television again.

In addition to band and fire performances, they would also like to do some political satire and commentary. So lately they've been sitting around church headquarters bouncing ideas off the walls and each other.

Like how does Sarah-Palin-meets-wolf-deity-in-the-afterlife sound?

Stay tuned.

Former Daily News features writer Deb McKinney stays warm at her home near Palmer.

By DEBRA McKINNEY

Special to the Daily News

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