30 Odd Foot of Grunts at the House of Blues, September 2003.

September 19th, 2003

By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic

Both onscreen and off, actor Russell Crowe has cultivated the persona of a brooding outsider who reels from the spotlight with suspicion and irritation.

Give him a guitar and it’s a whole other story. Crowe and his longtime band, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, kicked off their first of five shows in seven days at the House of Blues Sunday with obvious intentions to shed some stereotypes. Over the course of a 24-song, two-hour and 40-minute set, Crowe channeled his inner Sammy Davis Jr by leisurely telling stories and cracking jokes with the ubiquitous smoke and drink in hand. If celebrity was a yoke clamped around his neck, it wasn’t obvious. Instead, Crowe proved he could be funny, unpredictable, raunchy and frustratingly self-aware in the course of one night. There was music played, too.

The truth is, in overcoming the celebrity factor, Crowe and his Australian bandmates faced a challenge that’s entirely unique. they tempered it by downplaying to the extreme. Crowe’s heartthrob status drew mostly middle-aged women, many diehards who flew in from all points of the globe. Crowe took swaggering jabs (“there’s a lot more men here than usual – that’s a progression”) while goofing on his cameo at the Cubs game Friday (“we sang ‘Take Me Out to the Ballroom’ “), holding up a lighter during his own power ballad (“Never Be Alone Again”) and teasingly commandeering the crowd to follow his every ham-fisted whim.

His six bandmates worked to abet but also to rope him in. Crowe’s history with some – particularly guitarist Billy Dean Cochran and bassist Garth Adams – stretches back to the late ’80s. Their familiarity helped fuel the prankish mood. When things did kick in, they proved this was hardly a vanity project but a volatile live band with serious Americana roots. Their playing veered from hook-filled pop (“Swallow My Gift”) to atmospheric ballads (“The Same Person”) to hard rock (“Someone Else’s Princess”). Flugelhorn player Stewart Kirwan lent even the most straightforward songs an impressionistic elegance while the band’s three-guitar lineup delivered the Alice Cooper Group’s “Be My Lover” with scruffy intensity.

Crowe’s ended the night with back-to-back Johnny Cash covers (“Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues”) that he turned into messy house party rockers. By this point, the pacing had unraveled so much that almost every song integrated some level of Crowe’s impulsive antics. “This is so much fun!” he yelled to no one in particular. For someone whose day job is sticking to the script, this was cutting loose at all cost.

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