Another summer day, another huge concert memory. On this day in 2003, Canada had its biggest-ever rock show – Molson Rocks For Toronto, more commonly referred to as “Sarstock.”
In some unfortunate ways, 2003 was a sort of “fire drill” for 2020 as it turns out. A new corona virus – SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) – had shown up in China, originating it would seem in one of their live animal markets. Hundreds there began getting a pneumonia-like, highly contagious disease that at first baffled doctors. And made them sick as well. The virus made its way through adjacent areas of Asia early in the year but, remarkably, stayed more or less contained there – with one exception. Canada, or more precisely, Toronto. On Feb. 23, about four months after the Chinese outbreak began, an elderly woman from Hong Kong showed up in a Toronto hospital with it. Soon she was joined by her son, who died days later. Seemingly within a blink of an eye, it was running wild throughout Toronto. Or at least its large “Chinatown” neighborhood and several hospitals. By the time the World Health Organization declared it “contained” in July, Canada had accumulated something in the range of 400 cases, mainly in Toronto, and had 44 deaths from it, the most outside of Southeast Asia. (there were no fatal cases in the U.S., by comparison, and at highest estimate, 27 cases.) It was suggested that 90% of the cases were spread in two hospitals, North York General and Scarborough General. Many of the effected and dying were in fact doctors and nurses. So bad was it that the W.H.O. put out an advisory briefly in the spring urging people not to travel to Toronto. Such things understandably hit the Toronto economy hard, with an estimated 100 000 out-of-town tourists canceling plans to visit and hundreds of hotel workers losing their jobs.
By the time cases were beginning to diminish, a couple of federal politicians from Ontario wanted to do something to promote tourism again. Their concept – a big, televised concert to show the world Toronto was safe and open for business again. They got together with Molson breweries and quickly set up the huge one day event at Downsview, an abandoned military base in the city. It had hosted the Pope the previous year and let over three-quarters of a million people see him, so the sky was the limit for this show.
A high-quality lineup of both local acts and international superstars was assembled, with none other than the Rolling Stones headlining. The Stones have had an odd love-hate relationship with Toronto, with Keith Richards being arrested and jailed there in the ’70s for drug possession (which resulted in a charity concert as part of his penalty) but the band also recording records at the small El Mocambo club there and seemingly being almost part-time residents for years. Mick Jagger said on the concert day, “eight weeks ago we were asked to do this. We were on tour in Europe and we had some other dates. We moved those dates around and decided we would do this.”
The gates swung open around 8 AM, and by lunch the show was under way, kicked off by comedians Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi, who’d do a few numbers throughout the day. Sam Roberts, then a very promising young rocker who was riding up the charts was on soon after, and Kathleen Edwards and The Tea Party. The Flaming Lips were the first big international act, complete with many dancers in furry animal costumes on stage. The Isley Brothers followed, as well as local faves Blue Rodeo. The fast-paced (15 minute sets generally) afternoon sets gave way to the big events as the sun grew lower in the sky, beginning with a rather poorly-received Justin Timberlake who at times had to dodge water bottles being tossed at him. As a show of support perhaps, the Stones would invite him back to join with Mick on “Miss You” while Keith admonished the crowd for bad behavior. After Justin came the much better-liked Guess Who, hometown heroes Rush (who added a cover of “Paint it Black” to their set) then AC/DC and of course the Stones as a finale. They did a fairly complete 90 minute set. Jagger would tell reporters that night it was “the biggest party I’ve ever seen. Toronto is back!”
The $21.50 tickets sold out quickly weeks in advance, with the total number of attendees being pegged at 490 000. A chunk of the funds went to hospital workers and unemployed hospitality-sector workers. The city opened up the subway and ran them for free that night to help the massive crowd disperse.
In Canada, MuchMoreMusic televised the show for those out of town or who suffer from claustrophobia; the national CBC network also showed a highlight show that night. Media like the New York Times were there and reported on it, no doubt helping publicize the politicians original goal of getting tourists to come back. Toronto’s counter-culture paper, Now, rated the show 3-stars out of 4, calling it “a well-behaved” – save for the water bottles and booing of Timberlake – middle of the road concert, lamenting that for a show sponsored by a brewery, beer stands were hard to locate and “simple actions like buying a hamburger or finding the city of outhouses required at least 30 minutes.” They also put forth a common opinion of the day, that “AC/DC stole the show with their balls-out approach. The Stones on the other hand were suprisingly sloppy.” Not that too many were complaining by the time the final refrains of “ “ rang out.
Within a few months, those who missed out looking for hamburgers or beer could soon relive it at home… to some degree. A two-hour DVD of the show was put out by Rhino Home Video, although obviously, some acts (Sam Roberts, Blue Rodeo) were omitted entirely and most of the big-name sets were edited to just one or two songs.
If only Covid was so limited that a single concert in one city could help alleviate its toll.