"I predict we're going to have an incredible time tonight," Tom Petty told his Bonnaroo audience late Sunday night. He delivered; as fire lanterns drifted into the sky and the rain poured, Petty led mass sing-alongs of his hits, from "Here Comes My Girl" to "Free Fallin'" – and drew huge cheers during tight covers of "Friend of the Devil" and "Baby Please Don't Go." "It smells really good at Bonnaroo," Petty said at one point. "I swear it smells like pot."
"It was pretty strong," he told Rolling Stone last night with a laugh as he reflected on the festival. "But you know, that's a nice aroma to play music in."
Petty clearly reveled in playing for a young audience that may have come to see current chart-toppers, from Kendrick Lamar to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. "That's really the fun of playing a festival like that: you're playing to lots of hardcore fans, but you're also playing to people that have never seen you before. So it was very gratifying to get the kind of response we got last night, and it's tremendous fun. It's great to play to so many young people that you know couldn't have even been born when we started out. They were just a wonderful audience."
It's a good time to be a Heartbreakers fan; Petty overhauled his live set during a string of theater shows in New York and L.A. – resurrecting the Traveling Wilburys' "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" and covered hits by Zombies and Paul Revere and the Raiders. "I think we have raised the bar a bit," he says. "We were saying on the plane last night, 'If we didn't feel this was getting better, we probably wouldn't be doing it.' I think if we felt like we were sliding back a step or two, we wouldn't be as inspired about doing this. But we're in a good place right now mentally, and as a team, we're all focused on the same goal and the communication musically is really fantastic right now. I think in many ways, we have gotten better."
Petty sends his best wishes to Mumford & Sons, the band that had to cancel their Saturday night performance at the festival after bassist Ted Dwane underwent emergency surgery for a blood clot in his brain. "Yeah, I heard about that," says Petty. "I feel really bad for them and I hope he gets well soon." Petty also had high praise for Jack Johnson, who played his first full show in more than a year as a last-minute Mumford replacement. "Oh man, that's really ambitious," says Petty. "That's great that he did that."
Even though he has been playing deeper cuts lately instead of all hits, Petty still enjoys seeing a crowd sing along to "Free Fallin.'" "Some of those songs I've played many, many times," he says. "But every time we play it, you know, you just feel that joy in the crowd – you know, it kind of re-inspires you to do a good job on it. The night before we went to Bonnaroo, we were in Indianapolis and there were times I was drowned out, you know, by the crowd. [It] was so loud that it was coming through my vocal mic, but it's a wonderful feeling."
One of Petty's fondest memories of Bonnaroo? "There was a young girl in the front row. When we walked out, she held out a big sign that said, 'I was raised on your music.' And I thought, 'That's really sweet.'"