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However Widespread Panic vocalist John Bell costumes for his band's sold-out Halloween concert at the Lakefront Arena, it won't be as a chicken. Or Ignatius J. Reilly.
In 1997, the first year the Georgia jam band spent Halloween at the arena, Bell masked as the "A Confederacy of Dunces" hero, complete with hunting cap and pillow-enhanced belly. For Halloween '05 in Las Vegas, he wore a full-body chicken suit. Neither was conductive to singing and playing guitar for three hours under stage lights.
"Hopefully it won't be something that's too uncomfortable," Bell said of his costume during a recent phone interview. "I've had a few choices that kept me pretty hot and bothered."
If past years are any indication, the jam-packed Lakefront Arena will be plenty humid as Panic fans from around the country celebrate one of the most anticipated events on their calendar.
In 2002, the band played three consecutive sold-out nights at the Lakefront Arena for Halloween. Since then, the annual blowout has moved to other cities, in part because Hurricane Katrina rendered the Lakefront Arena unusable until this summer.
"Suffice it to say, we're happy to get back," Bell said. "We missed our city. Even though we're not native to it, New Orleans has been really good to us over the years."
Halloween concerts demand not just costumes, but surprise cover songs as well. In 2002, Panic rendered Nelly's "Hot in Herre."
"I forget who introduced that to us," Bell said. "I wasn't listening to much radio, so I wasn't familiar with it until somebody brought it up. Knowing his mischievous nature, it was probably JoJo (Hermann, the band's keyboardist).
"It was fun. There are a lot of words in there; I skipped over a few. And the kids, they knew the song. I'm just an old fuddy-duddy."
What they'll unveil this weekend is a closely guarded secret. Fans meticulously chronicle set lists and cross-reference songs by when they were last played. The musicians tune all that out when constructing a set list.
"Pretty much that's our territory. People can have their wishes, but it's enough of a task just trying to please ourselves. To try to run around chasing the tail of the audience, as far as what we might think they want. . . . It's like bringing gum to class. If you're going to be fair about it, you need to take requests from everybody."
Panic's long affiliation with New Orleans includes a periodic creative partnership with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and support for other local bands. Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue opens for Panic tonight; Ivan Neville's DumpstaPhunk is on the bill for Saturday's show, for which tickets are still available.
Widespread Panic is also in regular rotation at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Panic's 2½-hour show was the longest of the 2008 Jazzfest.
"Which some people like, some people don't," Bell said. "That's born out of what we do as Widespread Panic. We play three, 3½ hours. When we go to festivals, whether it's Bonnaroo or Jazzfest . . . the kids who jump in front of the stage to see Widespread Panic are expecting a little longer performance time.
"In no way do we want to screw with tradition or think we're more deserving of attention than anybody else. We want to be able to deliver to some extent what the expectations of a Widespread Panic show might be. For a festival, 2½ hours feels about right to really get our ya-ya's out."
Panic left more than memories in New Orleans. The band sponsored a house in Brad Pitt's Make It Right redevelopment in the Lower 9th Ward; Panic fans are also collecting money for an additional house.
"It's really a hip project," Bell said. "They've got a team in there helping folks with finances as far as being able to maintain these houses, and how to work all the eco-friendly systems. It's helping to build the community, not just the structures."
During the 2002 Halloween stand at the Lakefront Arena, unofficial parking lot entrepreneurs peddled photos of founding Widespread Panic guitarist Michael "Mikey" Houser alongside the usual assortment of quesadillas and glass pipes. Houser had died of pancreatic cancer that summer. Fans still harbor fond memories of him.
"You can feel it when you're doing some of his songs," Bell said. "And there is a Neil Young song we do that has a reference, 'Met a friend who plays guitar.' You can hear the kids give a little whoop out in the audience. I'm fairly certain that's in memory of Mikey."
Initially, the band recruited longtime friend George McConnell to step in for Houser. More recently, Panic installed North Carolina guitarist Jimmy Herring as lead guitarist.
He and Houser "are different personalities, just the way you carry on a conversation," Bell said. "Mikey would flip the switch and was gone, non-stop from the beginning of the set to the end. We'd play alongside each other, but I'd be moving in and out and riding on that wave.
"There's a little more obvious two-way give and take with Jimmy. But as it spreads out throughout the whole band, the ebbs and flows and the momentum and harmonies and energy swells, it's palpable. Jimmy really knows what's going on."
Looking ahead, the band anticipates a lighter touring schedule in 2009. But they don't intend to take a yearlong hiatus, as in 2004.
"It felt weird," Bell said of that break. "When you do something repetitively for almost 20 years, and then curtail that activity, you lose a little bit of rhythm. I felt a little bit lost. I had a lot of fun, but it was a strange experience.
"It helped remind you of how much fun it really was to be in a band, and not take it for granted. You do something for that long, it's easy to go, 'That's just what we do. It's no big deal.' Then when you don't do it for a while, you're like, 'Wow, I really miss playing.' "