The extremely special relationship between the Rolling Stones and the city of Toronto was there for all the world to see on July 30, 2003. It was also there for an estimated 450,000 people to see in person, at what became Canada’s biggest-ever concert.
The event was Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto, a two-part extravaganza endorsed by the Stones as a way to help the city’s economy get back on its feet after the outbreaks of the deadly respiratory disease SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) earlier in the year. The setting for SARSStock, as it also became known (or even SARSapalooza), was Downsview Park, a vast former military base with the capacity to accommodate such a multi-artist spectacular.
That help was very much needed, not least as Toronto’s tourism numbers had been badly hit by the 2002-03 outbreak, with thousands of hotel and tourism industry workers laid off. World Health Organization figures confirmed that Canada recorded 251 cases of SARS, a fatality rate of 17.1 percent, one of the highest in the 29 territories to be struck by the pandemic.
Toronto had long been a favorite home away from home for the Stones, and by this time, had been their base for rehearsals for several of their recent, multi-million-dollar worldwide tour spectaculars. It had also been highly significant during some volatile times in the band’s history in 1977, as the location for the famed El Mocambo club shows, officially released for the first time in 2022, and as the scene of Keith Richards’ infamous drug bust and subsequent trial.
The record-breaking attendance for the 2003 concert was all the more remarkable as tickets, mostly modestly priced, went on sale less than four weeks earlier, on June 27. “Eight weeks ago we were asked to do this,” said Mick Jagger at a backstage press conference. “We were on tour in Europe [the Licks tour having played in Prague just three nights earlier] and we had some other dates. And we moved those other dates around in Europe and decided that we would do this.”
Wrote Neil Strauss in the New York Times: “If Woodstock was an antiestablishment event, SARSstock celebrated a return to the established order with patriotic announcements, maple-leaf-flag waving, [and] advertisements that Toronto was open for business again.”
The day was hosted by “Blues Brother” Dan Aykroyd and divided into two parts. The first, in the afternoon, featured a preponderance of major Canadian stars such as Jann Arden, Kathleen Edwards, The Tea Party, Blue Rodeo, and others, as well as the Isley Brothers, The Flaming Lips, and Ackroyd and Jim Belushi’s Have Love Will Travel Revue.
Further local and global heroes were on the bill for part two, including Rush, AC/DC, Justin Timberlake – who had to endure energetic and physical heckling from some of the crowd – and the Guess Who. With Jagger in a hot pink coat, the Stones hit the ground running with a one-two punch of “Start Me Up” and “Brown Sugar.” “This is the biggest party in Toronto’s history, right?” said the frontman “You’re here. We’re here. Toronto is back and it’s booming.”
CBC News Online reported that up to 180 hotel workers volunteered to flip burgers and turn sausages at the concert, raising funds for colleagues and for healthcare workers. The Stones donated half of their merchandising profits to the SARS relief fund, and $1 from each ticket sale and the net profits of official merchandise also went to the fund.
Everyone joined the effort, including Timberlake who, unbowed by the earlier booing, joined Jagger on “Miss You,” with Malcolm and Angus Young of AC/DC joining the party for “Rock Me Baby.” For the encore, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” served raucous conformation