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Panic at the Disco headlines New Jersey's Bamboozle festival

Glenn Gamboa
Newsday (MCT)

Panic at the Disco, like so many veterans of The Bamboozle festival before them, is set to return this weekend to the annual pop-rock extravaganza in the Meadowlands parking lot bigger and better than they were the last time they played.

Though the Las Vegas band's new album, "Pretty. Odd." (Fueled by Ramen) debuted at No. 2, Panic's Spencer Smith says he and his mates are looking forward to the band's triumphant return. In fact, Panic will take the unusual step of interrupting the Honda Civic Tour - which it's headlining and is already set for Manhattan's Roseland Ballroom May 7 and 8 - to headline The Bamboozle on Sunday.

"We played it two years ago, so to be headlining it this year is amazing," said Smith, during a recent break in rehearsals for "Saturday Night Live" earlier this month. "I think we'll definitely be having more fun than when we played at 2 in the afternoon for like 100 kids."

And The Bamboozle's festival director, John D'Esposito, couldn't be happier. After all, introducing new artists to large crowds is what it's all about. Last year, the New Jersey festival drew 85,000 fans over two days - though this year, on May 3 and 4, the festival will draw only about 70,000 because capacity had to be lowered due to construction at the Meadowlands. (Note to procrastinators: That means it will likely sell out earlier than usual this year.)

"We are an artist-development festival," D'Esposito says proudly. "If you want to go see massive headliners, go to Coachella. Go to Bonnaroo."

Unlike those festivals (in California and Tennessee, respectively), which are generally driven by big-named reunions and stadium-size headliners, The Bamboozle focuses on up-and-comers and sticks with them.

For D'Esposito, there are two types of acts for his festival: the homegrown and the imported. Homegrown acts are the ones that played The Bamboozle when they were just starting out and have kept coming back as their careers have taken off, playing to bigger and bigger crowds. The imported ones are the big-name acts that the festival brings in to help boost the lineup and keep the fans guessing.

D'Esposito seems happy to point out that five of this year's six headliners - Panic at the Disco, Jimmy Eat World, Paramore, Gym Class Heroes, and Coheed and Cambria - are all homegrown. Only Snoop Dogg is an import.

"We brought Snoop in because he takes us in a different direction, he brings a different element," D'Esposito says. "But he's also fun. We weren't going to put someone up there who isn't fun."

Panic at the Disco is a good example of the kind of growth - artistically and in popularity - that D'Esposito looks for when he books his headliners. "Pretty. Odd." ambitiously takes the quartet's knack for writing pop melodies and applies them not to emo, but the classic constructs of The Beatles and The Beach Boys.

"It wasn't a conscious decision or something that we had gone over before we started writing," Smith says. "It just naturally ended up happening. We just started writing and keeping the things we liked. Something just clicked."

In a way, Smith says people shouldn't be so surprised. After all, the band - whose members are in their early 20s - is simply getting better at being musicians. "Part of what ended up happening was that when we first started touring, we quickly found out that we had five songs that were the same tempo," he says. "So when we were rehearsing, we would be playing cover songs and think, I want to have songs like this. They're fun to play."

Through live performance, Panic at the Disco also learned that packing lots of lyrics into every measure isn't always the best move. (Even the long titles from their debut album, like "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide Is Press Coverage," have been replaced by more concise ones.) "Sometimes less is more," Smith says. "Sometimes slowing things down and giving it a breath make them more impactful."

That kind of change is something D'Esposito says The Bamboozle relates to.

"A lot of festivals stay tied to their roots," D'Esposito says. "We expand. We think that's a key ingredient in our long-term future."

Though The Bamboozle made its name with indie-rock and punk-leaning bands, it has always found space for more pop-oriented artists. The Jonas Brothers played to big audiences at The Bamboozle before breaking into the mainstream. And this year, pop stars like OneRepublic and Poison's Bret Michaels will make their festival debuts.

"We wanted to bring the Jonas Brothers back," D'Esposito says, "but they leapfrogged right over us with their own tour."

Maybe The Bamboozle's ongoing expansion - with its new, pre-festival concert, The Hoodwink, making its debut this year, alongside the traveling tour The Bamboozle Road Show and the West Coast version of the festival, The Bamboozle Left - will propel it to Jonas Brothers level again soon.

"We really are a pop festival and we really do think differently," D'Esposito says. "I think a lot of festival organizers spend a lot of time with calculators. We try to keep it affordable and still cater to everyone's needs. Given the way the economy is, we think that may be very important this year. It's our way of doing what we do best."

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