July 30 – Mick Said Toronto Was Back After Mini-pandemic

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.

26 thoughts on “July 30 – Mick Said Toronto Was Back After Mini-pandemic

  1. That would have been something to attend thats for sure Dave. I have watched it on YouTube and that crowd is massive. I think there are two bands in the world you don’t follow. AC/DC is one and Metallica is the other.
    I saw the Guns n Metallica tour and Axl insisted they play last on that tour which was the worst possible move as the sonic live fury of Metallica for 2 hours just killed any momentum that Guns tied to get going.
    I caught that show Sept 92 in Minneapolis. Axl should have set his ego aside.


      1. indeed. It sometimes baffles me as to why some of these promoters make picks like that… are they that far removed from the music scene that they just look at a Billboard chart and start picking names without thinking of their sound or fans?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. badfinger20 (Max)

    Sounds like a great great show. Timberlake just didn’t fit the picture though. I don’t agree with throwing things but the organizers should have known. I hope it helped to heal the city.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I was amaaaazed Keith admonished the crowd and high-fived Timbo- he must have been very pissed at the crowd and feeling very charitable to the little twa- sorry, baseball cap wearing lad.
    But, yeah, wrong act, wrong crowd. Be nice folks. If the venue was good enough for the Pope a little Timberlake in’t too much of a desecration, surely?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah… Rolling Stones with special guest Justin Timberlake seems one of the odder pairings you’ll see. As I said to Max, throwing stuff is just ignorant. If I’d been there, it’d be the time I would’ve likely gone in search of the restrooms and then a refill from the sponsors…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Same here. My girlfriend back then didn’ t like being in a crowd of 3000 for a small concert so it would’ve been dumb to try to take her to that…besides, the wait for washrooms & trying to leave at night were daunting to me.


      1. Yup it was a logistical nightmare. I said the same hard no when the Hip played the Wiarton airport, near us. Just no. Turned out I was right, they ran out of water, the porta-potties were full, just gross. Nope nope nope.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. yeah, maybe when I was in my 20s I would have liked such events – maybe – but not by the time I hit my late 30s which I was at the Sarsfest time. Biggest concerts I’ve been to are Toronto CNE, like The Cure and Peter Gabriel, both around 28000 I think, which was manageable in that setting.


      3. Biggest concert I ever went to was Edenfest in the late 90s. 27 bands in 3 days, slept in a tent. Yeah. Biggest event I’ve ever attended was the Indianapolis 500, close to half a milion there, but it was very well-managed and lots of logistics handled. Unreal though, that one.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. I bet – were you in grandstands or out on a lawn along track?
        I’ve been to sell out games at Skydome/Rogers Centre, which would be around 50 000 (before they recofigured the stadium)but that’s easy to deal with in a stadium, with many exits and people dispersing on foot, by subway, by commuter train and cars parked half a mile away.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. At the Indy 500, we were in the bleachers, but just two rows off the track on turn 4. Yup, RIGHT down front. When Fitipaldi exploded his gearbox I thought we were gonna die in the smoke before the air cleared. We had to look down the track to even see what colour the cars were, they were going so fast it was just a blur in front of us. An amazing thing, TV does not do it justice at all.

        Liked by 2 people

      6. I guess it would be an experience. We used to watch some NAscar and Indy races on TV when I was little (I think it was my Mom who liked them most) and I usually did get tired of them before the 500 mile end! the live experience puts me in mind of hockey…I am OK with watching hockey on TV, but not as big a fan as most of my friends up north were. But went to one OHL (minor league) game in person, was in maybe fifth row, and that was a lot more exciting to see than TV – even though the TV follows the action and puck a bit better.

        Liked by 1 person

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