By David Ball
Move over Woodstock and Monterey Pop…
Over 450,000 people attended Canada’s largest outdoor concert, which was held on July 30, 2003, at Downsview Park in Toronto.
Officially titled Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto, but commonly referred to as SARSfest, the show was a benefit to help Toronto’s struggling economy and once-thriving tourism industry, which was savaged by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak accompanied by a travel warning issued by the World Health Organization. (In fact, much of Canada was painted with the same SARS brush by the rest of the world.)
The benefit was organized at the behest of the headliners, The Rolling Stones, who wanted to help the city they’ve had a long – and sometimes sordid – relationship with. Their star power ensured a lucrative payday and enhanced the city’s battered international image across the globe. (I lived through this and can tell you most of my fellow Torontonians considered the worldwide reaction to SARS overblown, misinformed, unfounded and xenophobic.) The CBC and MuchMoreMusic provided television coverage, and the world press reported the event as well.
I think the only one dreading the feel-good gig was the owner of the nearby Idomo Furniture store, Gerrit de Boer, who no doubt feared a repeat of the wall of raw sewage that flooded his flagship location during Pope John Paul II’s World Youth Day visit to Downsview Park the previous summer. The park’s 7,000 portable toilets were unable to accommodate over 800,000 worshippers, causing the sewer lines to back up and consequently send a Noah’s Ark–like level of decidedly unholy human sludge (32,000 litres) into the store, desecrating nearly his entire inventory.
Organized in just a month, SARSfest featured both daytime and evening bills. The afternoon lineup was a hodgepodge of dissimilar acts linked together for the greater good, including (in order of appearance): The Have Love Will Travel Revue (Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi’s blues revival), Sam Roberts, Kathleen Edwards, La Chicane, The Tea Party, The Flaming Lips, Sass Jordan, The Isley Brothers and Blue Rodeo.
Far more interesting was the star-studded evening lineup: Justin Timberlake, a reunited Guess Who, Rush, AC/DC and The Rolling Stones. Unfortunately, Timberlake’s 20-minute set was memorable for all the wrong reasons. The former ’N Sync standout had to endure thousands of boos and angry taunts from AC/DC fans – as well as dodge the occasional thrown water bottle. What a bunch of jerks! Sure Timberlake may not have fit the rock-heavy evening lineup, but he was there in good faith and volunteered to help the beleaguered city. Leave it to some moron AC/DC fans to attack the talented performer. To his credit, Timberlake was all class regarding his poor reception. To paraphrase: If I was here to see AC/DC, I’d boo me too.
Jerk fans aside, if SARSfest had a competition for best performance, AC/DC would have won hands down. The quintet delivered rock anthem after rock anthem, including “Hell’s Bells” and “Thunderstruck,” thrilling the decidedly pro-AC/DC audience. Almost as good were The Flaming Lips and The Guess Who. The former ’60s icons reformed for this special event with Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings sounding as fresh as ever. Unfortunately, Rush put in an uncharacteristically sloppy performance, though the prog-rock trio had a good excuse: they were the last band added to the lineup and didn’t have enough time to properly rehearse (they also felt obligated to take part since they’re from Toronto).
As a longtime Stones fan, I think they sounded pretty tight – no surprise given they interrupted their European tour to headline the show. They had no trouble whipping the crowd up during most of their 90-minute set and sent everyone home happy with classics “Tumbling Dice,” “Ruby Tuesday” and “Sympathy for the Devil.” One of their only missteps was when AC/DC whipping boy Timberlake joined the legends for a duet on “Miss You.”
As Jane Stephenson wrote in her original Sun Media review of the show: “Unfortunately, Jagger and Timberlake didn’t really mesh in terms of style, particularly when Timberlake inserted the chorus of his song, ‘Cry Me a River,’ into the Stones’ disco-inflected chestnut.”
Many fans booed, which visibly infuriated Keith Richards (he’d clearly had enough of the crowd’s anti-Timberlake antics). I love this man and thank you Rolling Stones!
On August 3, 1954, The Crew Cuts remained at No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart for a second straight week with “Sh-Boom” (sometimes referred to as “Life Could Be a Dream”). Originally released by R&B vocal group The Chords earlier the same year, the groundbreaking Toronto pop band did a more traditional big band take on the doo-wop cut. (The Chords’ single is considered to be one of the first pop songs to reach the Top 10 – it peaked at No. 9.) The Crew Cuts’ “Sh-Boom” stayed at No. 1 for an impressive nine straight weeks and remained on the charts for over two months. Sh-Wow!!!
Although they had many self-penned hits in Canada, The Crew Cuts made their fortune in the United States doing covers of doo-wop and R&B songs. The quartet broke up in 1964, but reunited in Nashville in 1977 and again in 1984 when they were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame with fellow vocal groups The Four Lads and The Diamonds.
Another feel-good event took place on August 5, 1989.
Rod Stewart headlined a benefit concert in Boston, Massachusetts, in honour of Terry Fox. The Marathon of Hope runner lost his battle with cancer in 1981, but his legacy continues to inspire the world. At the benefit, Stewart performed the soulful song “Never Give Up on a Dream,” which he co-wrote with Bernie Taupin and Jim Cregan, and that captures the essence of Fox’s journey.
Since the track – which was recorded on Stewart’s 1981 album Tonight I’m Yours – is about Canada’s greatest national hero (in my humble opinion, but I’m right) it immediately became one of my all-time favourites. I especially like the lines: “Inspiring all to never lose/It’ll take a long, long time for someone to fill your shoes/ It’ll take somebody who is a lot like you/Who never gave up on a dream.”
Note: On September 1, 1981, after 143 days and more than 5,300 kilometres, the young one-legged crusader was forced to abandon his cross-Canada run to raise funds and awareness for cancer research.
The idea for the tune came sometime in late 1980 or early 1981 when the British rocker happened to watch a documentary about Terry Fox: “I saw it on TV and thought that’s certainly worth a song.”
Epic understatement aside, it’s unfortunate Stewart has never composed any other songs during his long and productive career that rival the depth and compassion of the Fox tribute – unless, that is, you find “Tonight I’m Yours” and “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” truly inspirational.
Regardless, because of “Never Give Up on a Dream” and the Boston benefit concert (the money raised went to cancer research), Stewart gets a free pass for life from me. I’d even look the other way if he released an album of all Ke$ha tunes. Well, maybe not.
Next week: Procol Harum and Metallica
“Never Give Up on a Dream” by Rod Stewart