AUSTIN, Texas — Et tu, Maximus?
Actor Russell Crowe, a bona fide movie star nowadays, thanks to "The Insider" and, especially, the Roman epic "Gladiator," is following the lead of many a leading man and focusing his attention on rock 'n' roll. Crowe's Australian band Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts played its first of three gigs in Austin on Friday, part of a six-week stay to record an album here.
The 36-year-old actor is the singer and one of two chief songwriters in the group, which formed five years ago before Crowe's film career blossomed. The Grunts, or TOFOG (the name is derived from a filmmaking term for overdubbing), play a folky, lyrical blend of rock that includes heavy use of a trumpet and keyboards but few other frills.
On Friday, that music was heard by a crowd of about 2,000 at Stubb's, a local barbecue joint that has a backyard amphitheater. It was the band's first stateside appearance since playing the Viper Room in West Hollywood two years ago.
Why Austin? Especially in the dead of summer?
The actor came here in 1997 to promote "L.A. Confidential" at the Austin Heart of Film Festival, and was smitten. "I thought, 'What a fantastic place,' " Crowe said on stage, adding wryly, "and it isn't very hot here."
The Grunts, who are recording at Willie Nelson's studios, were also drawn by Austin's reputable music scene and by the fact that the city is far removed from the limelight of Los Angeles and New York. Or at least it usually is.
Crowe apparently doesn't want to crow too much about his band yet. As of Friday, he had turned down most interview requests about the band and wouldn't let photographers at the show. He certainly has not made much ado about the Grunts heretofore, either: The band has already released three CDs, available on the band's Web site, gruntland.com.
Any chance of Crowe keeping a lid on his Austin outing, though, was gone the moment tickets went on sale two months ago.
His ever-increasing fan sites on the Internet trumpeted the dates, so much so that out-of-town buyers crashed the Web site of Austin's Star Ticket the morning of sale. Tickets, some sold to fans as far away as China and Ireland, were going for $200 to $300 on eBay and at local ticket brokers. "No one expected the kind of response these shows have gotten," admitted Stubb's co-owner Charles Attal.
Because a majority of the tickets to Friday's concert could only be bought in person, the first show was largely attended by locals, most of whom, not surprisingly, had never even heard Crowe's music.
"I don't know anything about the band," said Molly Hodges of Austin, who went on to explain why she attended: "Let's just use the term 'eye candy.' "
Houston resident Tammy Porterfield, who wore a Roman toga to the show, had a similar story. "I'm here to see Russell," she said. "I know that won't be disappointing."
One of the biggest cheers from the female-dominated crowd came when Crowe took off his long-sleeved shirt during the pumped-up rocker "Somebody Else's Princess."
Underneath was a tight muscle-T, and a clear view of that Maximus gluteus in Levi's. Other songs the band played included "Circus," "Nowhere" and "Charlie's Song"--and the material was mostly as nondescript as the titles.
Crowe simply has a plain, inflexible voice. As for the band, it had its moments, but the music typically meandered and lacked character. What is it about actors that they nearly always produce rock music as bland as tofu jerky? Bruce Willis, Kevin Bacon, Jeff Bridges and Keanu Reaves all were, or are, sharply mediocre at it, enough so to make one long for the musical excursions of William Shatner or John Travolta, which were at least entertainingly sour.
Crowe kept his crowd entertained, but not with his music. He bantered often between songs, and at one point even poked fun at the fanatical elements of the concert. "Anybody want my empty beer can?" he asked, getting an expected affirmative reply. "Get a [expletive] life," he shot back.
Chris Riemenschneider is the pop music critic at the Austin American-Statesman.