EW brings you a front row report on the gig

By Brian M. Raftery
Updated August 15, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Russell Crowe — eyebrows furrowed, black guitar hanging at his side — stands in the 90 degree heat of an Austin, Tex., outdoor stage, his face heavy with emotion. As he introduces ”Memorial Day,” a song he wrote about his late grandfather, Crowe pauses to look skyward (could he be near tears?) when suddenly a sharp voice pipes up from the front of the crowd: ”Take off the shirt!” squeals a young woman. Unable to get his attention, she ups the volume: ”TAKE… YOUR…SHIRT…OFF!”

It’s got to be just a tad vexing to the ”Gladiator” star slash part time rocker. But it’s hard to fault the fans here for turning the Aug. 4 gig into a bit of a Circus Maximus. After all, Crowe and his six-piece bar band — the obscurely titled 30 Odd Foot of Grunts — were playing Stateside for the first time since the Aussie actor unleashed hell on screen. And tickets for the three Texas gigs — which the Grunts are squeezing in during a break from recording at a local studio — sparked an online frenzy, with auctions pushing ticket prices as high as $2,000.

And who was scooping up the tix? Put it this way: Not since the Kiss reunion has a rock show drawn a crowd wearing this much makeup. Gazing at the preponderance of gals in the audience, Australian warmup comic Nick Penn noted: ”We have 2,300 [people here]. That’s 2,000 women and 300 gay guys.”

Indeed, most of the eager female fans who lined up hours before the gates opened gushed more about Crowe’s looks than his hooks. ”I’ve never heard his music,” admitted 32 year old Austin furniture store employee Janice Chavez. ”I’m just here to see him,” she said, adding hopefully, ”and maybe Meg.” Still, not everyone was there just to get within drooling distance of Crowe and his equally famous new girlfriend, Meg Ryan (who didn’t show). ”There’s a story to every song that Russell writes,” praised Phyllis Johnson, 71, a Dallas administrative assistant. ”Some of them are really jivey and some of them are really sweet.”

Sweet — and sweaty. By the time Crowe and his bandmates took the stage, the only relief from the heat was the pork and perfume scented breeze that occasionally flapped the two Australian flags hanging above them. ”G’day, Austin,” Crowe, clad in a black button-down shirt and blue jeans, barked playfully. ”How the f— are ya?” With that, the Grunts charged into a two hour plus show, during the course of which Crowe, perhaps loosened up by the endless supply of onstage beer, eased into his role as frontman — shaking his hips, executing some Roger Daltrey style aerobics, and handing over a slightly used cigarette to a fan (look for that on eBay next week).

And he talked. A lot. From the weather (”I got to go change me undies — they’re a bit wet and sticky”) to politics (after damning democracy in general, he added, ”And that includes you, G.W.! And that includes you, Al! And all you other f—ers!”) to teasing the mostly local crowd for their lack of line dancing skills (”Here we are in Texas and all you people are bobbing your heads up and down!”), Crowe bantered away before almost every song — and yes, he did eventually strip down to a black undershirt.

Still, Crowe’s big mouth is well established. The real question: Can the guy actually sing? Said 21 year old Corinne Carson, ”I thought he sort of sounded like Jon Bon Jovi.” Next stop, New Jersey?