Alas, the first victim of the new Bonnaroo performance benchmark set Friday night by Paul McCartney might have been the festival’s closer: a somewhat oddly chosen Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who opened with The Byrds’ “So You Want to be a Rock 'n’ Roll Star” just as the skies literally threw cold water on the party. (The rain stirred the crowd a few songs later to a defiant sing-along with “I Won’t Back Down.”) As if aware they were filling a slot occupied in the past by a closing-night jam, Petty and his bandmates stretched out on extended versions of “A Woman in Love (It’s Not Me)” and his Traveling Wilburys’ Springsteen goof “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”; hell, he even tossed the jam base a bone with a nifty cover of “Friend of the Devil."
But as McCartney showed, it takes more than a big back catalog of hits to make a legendary Bonnaroo main-stage performance. It requires a grand vision as well as the boldness to play the crowd of 90,000 like an instrument — not just to move them, but to be moved by them. By contrast, this performance was business as usual: a perfectly fine theater show, but somewhat underwhelming as Bonnaroo 2013’s main-stage finale. Petty, perhaps the only performer alive capable of looking simultaneously haggard and chill, was very nearly upstaged by his longtime lead guitarist and ally Mike Campbell, whose air-raid solos on the sidewinding blues “Good Enough,” “Runnin’ Down a Dream” and an epic “It’s Good to Be King” were never less than spellbinding. Meanwhile, keyboard wizard Benmont Tench supplied gorgeous sonic shading throughout, with the piano on “Friend of the Devil” a particular standout.
A mid-set “Free Fallin’ ” was disappointingly abrupt, and we’re still waiting for “The Waiting.” (We did get a kick out of the weird little hip-swivel Petty kept using to punctuate songs, as well as his repeated thank-you to the audience: “Aw, you’re too sweet,” as if to a neighbor kid returning tools.) But with “American Girl” as the anthemic closer, Petty made good on his benediction, “We’re gonna leave you where it all started” — with ears ringing, and yet hungry for more music.