It’s a late Saturday afternoon at Paddy Whack’s Irish Sports Club, tucked away in a strip shopping center off Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philly.
Inside, fiddler C.J. Mills and frequent partner, singer-guitarist Seamus McGroary, are blazing away at a set of reels, playing for two little girls in sparkly dresses who are performing that day for Celtic Flame School of Irish Dance.
Suddenly, Mills leaps from the stage and climbs atop two high-top bar chairs, and plays away as if fiddling while poised inches away from the ceiling tiles is something he does all the time.
In fact, it is what he does all the time. He’s also renowned for jumping up and down while he plays on stage, as if he can’t contain the energy of the tune he’s cranking out. And he’s also known for playing with his electric fiddle propped behind his neck, which he does while he’s performing the balancing act on the chairs in Paddy Whack’s.
It took a while for him to learn how to play the fiddle version of a high wire act, but he loves doing it—and the audience loves that he does it.
This pony-tailed Bensalem High School teacher of media communications and public speaking, father of two (Hailey, 14, who sings, and Jack, 9, who is learning fiddle), producer, longtime Jamison sideman, and take-out restaurant owner (Drifters Feel Good Food in Sea Isle City) is classically trained, but he came up through rock and country. It was when he was asked to sit in with the Delaware rock band Love Seed Mama Jump that he first started refining his act.
“I would jump up and down with Love Seed because they were always high energy,” Mills says. “And then as I played in bars and played in different bands, I realized people want to be entertained. You can hear a fiddle any time, but what can I do to bring them a show? What can I do to have them remember it and enjoy it and say it’s different?”
Mills, 44, came to Irish and Celtic rock in a roundabout way. He started learning violin when he was 6.
“I always remember just wanting to play fiddle songs,” he says. “My dad and his whole side of the family are from West Virginia. I was sort of raised on country. He’d put on ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ and he’d say, ‘One day you’re going to do this … just keep practicing that thing.’ It would always be a reward if my music teacher would give me some country to learn.”
Later in life, he found himself working at Ocean Drive in Sea Isle City as a bouncer—and you can see how that would be, given his height, solid build, and biceps the size of softballs—when he was asked to join Love Seed.
He moved on from there to other bands. He was once playing with a rock band when the bar owner asked the members of the band if they could play Irish tunes for St. Patrick’s Day. He did some research, delving into Celtic rock music CDs, including some from the great Philly band Blackthorn, “because to me, that was Irish music.” After that, he says, “I just fell in love with the culture and the people,” Mills says. “It’s a cool form of music. It’s got a bit of rock, a bit of country. It’s fun. I also found out later that my great-great-grandfather was a fiddle player from Dublin. I’d never known that.”
One thing led to another. More recently, Mills has been a producer of the big Philadelphia Fleadh Festival, and he’s getting set to produce a show called Celtic Christmas in Bensalem. Scheduled for December 7, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Bensalem High School Performing Arts Center, the show is a full-blown Celtic music and dance experience benefiting the Bensalem Education Foundation and the Ryan Wilson OTN (Owls Television Network) Scholarship.
The show features the Celtic Flame School of Irish Dance and the Bucks County Dance Center, along with an all-star cast of local musicians known as the Celtic Christmas Band.
Mills is eagerly anticipating that show. “We’ll have all the dancers from Celtic Flame, and a bunch of dancers from the Dance Center who are going to be doing something more lyrical, maybe some hip hop, something different than Irish. Bensalem High School has an advanced dance class. We’re going to feature them. We’re going to feature the ROTC, and probably a piece of the choir.”
Best of all, he says, is the prospect of giving back to the community and highlighting the vibrant arts scene in Bensalem.
Working on the Fleadh and with the Celtic Christmas Band is also clearly a joy. “There’s a really cool camaraderie in the Irish music scene.”
One recent example: his and McGroary’s gig at Anglesea Pub in North Wildwood for Wildwood Irish Weekend. “There had to be 10 different musicians who got up and played with us,” Mills says. “And that’s really what it’s all about—people playing together and having fun together and playing music together. I think the scene is probably better in Philly than anywhere. There’s so many great bands out there, and guys like John Byrne and Ray Coleman. Through Celtic Christmas and the Fleadh, I’ve gotten to work with so many of them and see who they are as people and hang with them. It’s such a nice scene. I feel blessed to play in this city.”
Performing with McGroary has been a kick, too. McGroary is from Donegal, and he was raised in the Irish musical tradition.
Right now, Mills and McGroary are playing two or three times a week—and that seems like an incredibly busy schedule, along with his full time. But things get a bit crazier during the summer, where they’ll perform up to four times a week. Around Wildwood Irish Weekend and, predictably, St. Patrick’s Day, the schedule can be busier still. March, he says, is “where it’s really neat.”
Given the appeal of the music, the players and the culture, this natural born performer is not about to give it up anytime soon. “I’ll play,” he says, “until I can’t play anymore.”