Lucid Culture


Michael Arenella & the Dreamland Orchestra on Governors Island, NY 6/7/08

Musicians are almost without exception nocturnal creatures. If a band sounds good during the day, they’re doubtlessly even better at night. That singer/horn player Michael Arenella and his 11-piece big band the Dreamland Orchestra could go up on the stand Saturday afternoon under just about the worst possible circumstances and still manage to kick out the jams only augurs how good they’d sound after hours in an airconditioned club. The band name is something of a misnomer: it would be next to impossible to fall asleep listening to this crew. Arenella clearly takes great pleasure in knowing that while the music they play may seem quaint to most listeners today, it was the punk rock or hip-hop of its era, despised and even feared by older generations. With the ears of an archivist and the soul of a punk rocker, Arenella and his band play a mix of mostly upbeat blues, swing and Dixieland. Much of this material is very obscure: in the spirit of many of the competitive big bands of the 20s, the Dreamland Orchestra’s repertoire includes a lot of material that you probably won’t hear anywhere else. Most of it’s upbeat and fun, and all of it is danceable, pushing along on a clickety-clack rhythm (Arenella is an avid train enthusiast). Although temperatures were pushing the hundred-degree mark, there were dozens of couples in period costume out on the “dance floor” that the Parks Service has installed on the lawn in the middle of the island (the 20s flapper sub-subculture seems to be something akin to goth: you have to dress up, you can take on a different name or a slightly different personality, nerds are welcome and at the end of the night, you might even get lucky for the first time). But if anything, the nasty, breezeless conditions only made the experience more authentic. If Gatsby had existed, doubtlessly he would have approved.


Arenella first made a mark for himself as a trombonist, but at this gig he played trumpet when he wasn’t crooning (the guy is a serious crooner). It took awhile for the band to get going: “We’re all about form over function,” he joked while the rudimentary PA squeaked and protested in the heat. There wasn’t a breeze to be felt anywhere, but the band bit down hard and soldiered on, despite the “pie coma” that Arenella claimed to be suffering from. Perhaps for the sake of ambience, there was some sort of pie-judging contest going on, with free slices being handed out at random to anyone who approached the booth situated among the many vendors selling street-fair type stuff (the custard pie, with a luscious cinnamon-brown sugar-graham crust, was definitely a contender for best in show). Perhaps for the benefit of those who’d overindulged, the band would play a fast song and then a slower number, virtually all of them excellent. The high point was one of Arenella’s signature tunes, My Blue Heaven, which he punctuated with an aptly jaunty solo. Since this was an outdoor show and the PA was providing very little in the way of amplification, some of the instruments (predictably the piano, banjo and guitar) were practically inaudible to anyone who wasn’t on top of the stage, leaving it to the horns to soar across the lush expanse of greenery and keep everyone’s head bobbing.


The island, reopened under the administration of the National Parks Service five years ago, is well-kept: the old soldiers’ barracks haven’t turned into ghostly shells like those along the border of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. If the island remains a park, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing (although alcohol is prohibited, and visitors boarding the boat at the old Shaolin ferry terminal are subjected to an intense search by the security crew there: it’s safe to say that those guys can drink for free for the rest of their lives). And concertgoers need to be aboard the ferry at least five minutes before it leaves, otherwise you’ll have to wait up to an hour for the next one. The New York Philharmonic plays Tschaikovsky’s 1812 Overture here followed by fireworks on July 5 at 6:30. And the Dreamland Orchestra plays a weekly Sunday brunch residency at Café Tabac in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn starting around half past noon.


June 8, 2008 - Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews


  1. It was a truly fabulous way to spend the first day of the heat wave! Eye and ear candy deluxe. Thank you so much for writing about it as I’ve seen little or no mention (other than my own) in blogs about Michael and His Dreamland Orchestra.

    Comment by Bathory House | June 8, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] more detailed reports, check out the Lucid Culture and Periodic Elements of Style […]

    Pingback by Jazz Age Festival Was The Cat’s Pajamas! « Governors Island Blog | June 11, 2008 | Reply

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