June 10, 2002 12:00 PM

Sometimes Billy Bob Thornton looks out on his audience and sees Sheryl Crow or Slash. Then there was the gig at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin, Texas. “I bet tonight’s going to suck because the crowd’s going to want to hear ‘Free Bird,'” Thornton said before he and his eight-piece band made the May 22 stop on the eight-city, 10-day tour that ended May 28. “My songs are about suicide and that desperate kind of stuff.”

A hint of the dark side has to be expected from the 46-year-old actor, director and Oscar-winning writer who is as famous for wearing a pendant containing wife Angelina Jolie‘s blood around his neck as he is for the 1996 film Sling Blade. But will his singing talents stretch from Hollywood to Austin without tearing at the seams? Last September Rolling Stone praised Thornton’s first CD, Private Radio, as “a pleasing Southern Gothic exploration.” And this year Elvis Costello booked the band as an opening act for a few gigs of his tour this June. “People might come out thinking Billy’s a weekend rocker like Russell Crowe, Bruce Willis, Kevin Bacon and that bunch,” says guitarist Mike Shipp, who joined a ZZ Top cover band with Thornton in 1974 and has been a bandmate ever since. “Except he started out as a musician. He’s the real deal.”

And the real dad: His sons William, 8, and Harry, 7, by ex-wife Pietra just got a stepbrother in 10-month-old adopted son Maddox, whom Jolie, 27, brought home from Cambodia in time for the last dates of the tour. “His hair stands straight up,” Thornton says, “like he was born a punk rocker. He’s cute as hell.”

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