Triskele’s Noeleen Whelan was singing long before she moved from her native Dublin, Ireland, to the Capital Region in the 1970s.
While she was growing up in Dublin, Whelan and her family performed on Irish TV and radio, Raidió Teilifís Éireann. During her school days, she formed a trio with her friends, busking on the streets of Dublin and singing at a few church halls here and there. But when she moved to Albany after school and began working at Albany Medical Center, she stopped for the most part.
“Believe it or not, I was shy when I came over,” Whelan said, laughing, while at a coffee shop in Albany. “I wanted to get back involved with the singing but, you know, it was always taking a back seat. . . . I’d sing here and there, maybe a wedding here or a variety show at a firehouse or something, at parties and stuff, but that was it.”
When her family would visit from Ireland, they would hit up the local Irish bars, such as Eamonn’s outside Albany, and Whelan soon became familiar with the burgeoning local Irish-American music scene. But for her own music, she was looking for something different.
First Night Saratoga
Where: Various venues in downtown Saratoga Springs
When: Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to midnight
How Much: $15 for First Night button, free for children ages 5 and under
More Info: 584-4132, www.saratoga-arts.org/firstnight
“I was looking for not-your-usual Irish kind of group,” she said. “I was just looking for someone to harmonize with and [in] the Celtic language.”
She finally found what she was looking for in late 2009, when her sister Betty Ranellucci was hospitalized with a terminal illness in the intensive care unit at Albany Medical Center, where Whelan works. Sharon Wheeler, a music therapist, was helping to care for Ranellucci before her death, and Whelan was immediately drawn to her singing voice. The two quickly formed the backbone of Triskele.
“My sister was dying in ICU, and Sharon was up there helping, doing her healing touch, and that’s what actually got us all together,” Whelan said. “That’s why we called this [CD] ‘Look Back, Don’t Stare,’ because that was my sister’s favorite saying. So it just kind of all came together from — we found out that our harmonies really blended well.”
Fixture on scene
With Whelan’s daughter Christine Whelan-Taylor on bass and Wheeler’s friend Jennifer Kilinski on flute, Triskele has become a fixture on the local Irish music scene, standing out as the region’s only all-female Irish group, and also one of the few to have a member born and raised in Ireland. In addition to playing Caffe Lena and Irish bars from Saratoga Springs to Schenectady, the group has also worked its way onto a number of festival bills, including ones in Bennington, Vt.; Herkimer; and Hunter Mountain.
On Saturday, the band will play its first First Night in Saratoga Springs, performing at 9 and 10 p.m. at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Triskele is one of 70 different performances and art happenings
taking place in downtown Saratoga on New Year’s Eve in 35 different venues as part of the city’s 16th annual First Night celebration.
The musical acts, featuring local and close-by talent, range from Triskele’s take on traditional Celtic music to pop (Betsy and the ByeGons), to rock tributes (Imagining Lennon and McCartney with Tom “Lennon” Raider and Brad “Paul” Jarvis), to children’s performers (The Zucchini Brothers). (Click here for a complete schedule of First Night events.)
First Night will help kick off what’s shaping up to be a big year for Triskele. The band is planning to tour Ireland again in the summer, having done a tour in August. Whelan has been visiting her family in Dublin nearly every other year since the ’70s and enjoys performing for rowdy Irish audiences.
“Irish people are more involved, very involved,” she said. “We were in one hotel, and we were singing ‘Rare Old Times.’ It’s like a national anthem, about the Dublin growing up and all the old ways. Here [in the U.S.] a lot of people would not even know it, and sometimes in our sets we might not even sing it, but over there, these people in their 70s — there was an Irish dance group staying at the hotel with us. The whole audience sang — I didn’t even have to sing; they sang the song for us.”
The band plays a mix of traditional songs, including “Rare Old Times,” more modern originals and local covers from scene stalwart Kevin McKrell, often incorporating four-part harmonies. Gaelic is a large part of the group’s sound; Whelan has been teaching the other three members how to sing in the language.
“I used to teach my daughter Gaelic when she was young, so her main phrase is, ‘Suigh síos agus dún do bhéal,’ and that’s ‘Sit down and shut up,’ ” Whelan said. “And to this day she still remembers. It’s just part of the heritage, just trying to keep it — and nowadays in Ireland, the younger generation are trying to revive the language, which I think is marvelous. And the girls through practice and repetition, they’re actually now starting to get very involved with singing, especially the choruses and all of that.”
This mix of material is represented on the band’s full-length, “Look Back, Don’t Stare,” which features an original song by Whelan and Wheeler, “Anois Anseo (Here and Now).” But the group is also known for Whelan’s live storytelling, either from her own family’s traditions and stories or from traditional Irish jokes.
“I go home every year, and [the band] still makes fun of my accent,” Whelan said. “Actually, it works quite well in the group because they have me telling jokes too, and some true stories.”