Rock and Roll to the Rescue – Toronto, Canada

Rock and Roll to the Rescue
Toronto, Canada

“Wednesday, July 30th – Toronto – Rolling Stones.” That was the message I found on my answering machine. My friend had an extra ticket. It was now Tuesday. “Could I leave by 7PM?” he asked. I was still shaking sand from my shorts, having just returned from the Jersey shore, but not only was it the Stones, but fourteen bands – a festival – and the tickets were only $20. Who could say no?

In an unprecedented PR move, just a month earlier, the Canadian government along with Molson Canadian had sent out a plea. With Toronto’s economy reeling from SARS shock, they planned to stage the largest ticketed outdoor concert ever in Downsview Park, the site of an old air force base. They invited Canada’s best loved sons and daughters, both natural and adopted, to participate. So I was off to see a show of not only the Stones, but AC/DC, Rush, the Guess Who, Justin Timberlake, Sam Roberts, the Flaming Lips, Kathleen Edwards, the Isley Brothers, Sass Jordan, Blue Rodeo and La Chicane with Jim Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as hosts. Sir Mick (he’s been recently knighted) and the Stones had even turned around mid “Forty Licks” tour and hastened to Toronto’s aid.

I checked the website and found that they expected a half million people, if not more. Tickets were still available. This could be scary, I thought. I wondered if my friend knew about parking and hotels and…? I tried the links to maps and info but wasn’t able to connect. As they say in Canada, “It will be an adventure, eh?”

We decided to spend the night on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The Falls have always been a favorite family get-a-way and honeymoon spot for our area, but since the development of the Casino Niagara many people from western Pennsylvania have been making the trip to gamble. Local tour companies run bus transportation for groups. But it is an easy drive from Pittsburgh and takes about four hours. Route 79 North to Erie and then 90 North to Buffalo NY, where you have a choice of border crossings. The famous one is the Peace Bridge, but there is Queens and the Whirlpool also.

We found a Howard Johnson’s for $75 CA. It was clean, quite comfortable, and walking distance from the casino, restaurants, and amusements. While I was waiting for my friend to register, I overheard some people talking about the concert. They had heard rumors of a special guest, maybe Paul McCartney? They were calling it SARS-stock. Everyone was wondering if Toronto could pull it off. They had hosted 800,000 for the Pope but there had been some glitches, and for this they didn’t have as much time to plan.

There was time to try our luck at the casino. Not as lavish as Vegas or as generous with the drinks. I don’t get it. I would think that plying the gambler with liquor would be part of the game. Even in Atlantic City, I got a free drink at the slots. Here I had to pay $4.50 Canadian for a vodka and tonic. I like to be able to compensate for my losses by at least thinking that I am having really expensive drinks. Of course, getting $275 CA when I gave the cashier $200 USD was a little more bang for the buck.

Spanish Aero Car

Tourists Ride the Spanish Aero Car across Niagara’s Famous Whirlpool

The next morning we took a quick tour around the Falls. I was amazed at how the whole area has been revitalized. There are lots of family activities, including a Marvel Comic center where kids, both young and old, can have a close experience with the Hulk and his super hero buddies. There is also a Spanish Aero Car, where you can ride on suspension cables across the whirlpool section of the river. It looked pretty cool. I would like to go back and do that sometime.

But we had a concert to attend and Toronto was another hour and a half away. From Niagara we headed north on the QEW. As we neared the city, the local radio stations were giving coverage. They had some call-ins from concert goers on their cell phones. There were reports of long waits for the shuttle buses from parking lots. Everyone was encouraged to wear hats and bring/drink lots of water. On a huge, flat, air force base there wasn’t any shade and dehydration was a major problem. The concert was supposed to start at 2pm, but it had started at noon. Some people had been camping out since the previous afternoon. A clerk in a convenience store told us that parking was expensive – as much as $50 – and we could be in for a long walk to the park.

“How about the subway?” I asked. I had not been in Toronto for 30 years, but I have read a lot about the city. Every year I would think about taking in a theater production. Their cultural center rivals New York’s, and since reading an article in National Geographic, I had wanted to visit the Bata shoe museum. I knew the city had one of the world’s best subway systems. He thought for a moment and then gave us directions to the Kipling at Bloor station, right at one end of the green line, told us to change at Saint George and then ride to the last stop – Downsview Park. “A very short walk,” he added.

The parking lots were full, and someone suggested that we park at an adjacent strip mall. I immediately revamped my “take” list; I put two bottles of water in a Brazilian shopping bag with Kleenex and sunglasses and my brand new 30 SPF safari hat I had bought on the boardwalk at Wildwood. I left the other gear – the binoculars, the blanket, and, most sadly, the bar-noculars in the car. Oh, well, surely there would be a beer tent. After all, wasn’t Molson Canadian one of the sponsors?

Security seemed to be fairly light. They were allowing disposable cameras, unopened plastic bottles, and were basically just scanning everyone with a wand that identified metal. They didn’t even ask me to unzip my bag. I mourned my abandoned vodka-filled bar-noculars.

When we got there, Blue Rodeo was playing. The sound was good. There were giant video screens and a sea of people everywhere.


Elated Concert Goers Celebrate � SARS-stock, July 30, 2003

We decided to make our first stop the merchandise tent. Everyone was crushed in front of the stand, but it was an orderly, friendly crush. You could see ambulances and security guards helping people who were dizzy or passed out. Dan Aykroyd kept telling everyone to drink a bottle of water an hour. Water was free. All you had to do was go to a medical station and walk through the line and they would give you two bottles of water each.

We stood in line for over an hour to buy our shirts. A fellow suddenly looked at his watch and declared, “I’m from Dallas and it’s 4:20 in Dallas.” With that, he pulled out a big joint and fired up. Someone else in the crowd declared with a laugh, “Yeah, but you know the rules – Puff, Puff, Pass.” And so he did. And so it went. There was marijuana being passed. People weren’t hiding it either. Apparently, Toronto has decriminalized the stuff. One person told us that the police would take it, put it in an evidence bag, and give it back to you and tell you to take it home. Another person told us that smoking cigarettes in a public place is outlawed with a heavy fine ($5000) but you could smoke all the cannabis you wanted. Another person told us that you are allowed to grow and possess enough for personal use.

I never saw a beer tent. I understand that there were five of them, but they were really far from the stage. You had to stand in line for two hours to get a beer ticket; then it took you another hour to stand in line for a maximum two beers. All in all, liquor was not the focus of the day. As I watched almost a half million people, some of whom had been there for a day and a half, get along with a minimum of problems, I figured the city fathers had the right idea. Make the booze difficult – just let them mellow out. The next day the newspapers reported that police only had to deal with minor incidents, mainly dehydration and “lost” friends and family. No big deal!

Justin Timberlake, trying to shed his boy-band image, was a pleasant surprise. He started his set by saying that he was there just like everyone else – to see the Stones, but rather than cover some of their tunes like other bands, he stayed solely with tunes from his “Justified” release. Timberlake must have been a little too pop for the crowd because he got some boos and some thrown drink cups, but the veteran performer kept his cool. My friend and I both agreed that hearing his vocals live gave us a new appreciation. Later, it was a real opportunity to witness the Jagger and Justin duet to “Miss You”.

But the crowd didn’t start rocking until The Guess Who took the stage. “Taking Care of Business” got the sun-stupored crowd up and moving and sparked the first crowd participation of the day when lead guitarist Randy Bachman, who had reunited with the group for the event sang out, “See you havin’ fun, just a-lyin’ in the sun.” That was up close and personal for the sun-baked audience.

By that time, my friend and I had hop-scotched fairly close to the stage. The blankets were corner to corner and we had to be very careful not to step on any fingers or toes. Not that we could stay there forever. I don’t know how anyone could find their way back to a particular spot. We saw groups of people, holding hands, and snaking through the crowd like a conga line. Before long, I needed to use one of the portable toilets. Once again, there was great planning. It was a little hike, but there were over 3,000 of the blue and green guys lined up like soldiers on parade. No line – Yeah!


450,000 Attend Rock Concert � Toronto

DJ Z Tripp played between sets, so there was constant music. Amid much flag waving he and the other hosts kept congratulating the huge crowd on their behavior at this historic event. “And don’t forget – drink water.” “Let’s show the world that we can party on a civilized basis.”

And civilized it was, right through to the end of the night. Rush, who had journeyed from three different corners of the globe, charmed their hometown with a masterful display of classic rock favorites, including instrumental “YYZ”, “Freewill”, and the solid favorite, “Closer to the Heart”.

AC/DC upped the volume considerably. When the first note blared through the sound system, I knew we were in for something special. For over an hour, the Australian group showed their power by enveloping the park with raucous, fist-pumping sound. Lead guitarist, Angus Young, jumped and ran and cavorted, and even played on his back. When he did an on-stage strip-tease, only to moon the crowd with his maple-leaf emblazed boxer shorts, the fans cheered and applauded enthusiastically. As the strains of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” permeated Downsview Park and the sunset embellished Toronto’s distinctive skyline with a rosy hue, I decided I was a lucky girl, indeed.

Sorry to say, the long anticipated Rolling Stone performance was a little lacklustre. Not surprisingly, they opened with “Start Me Up,” but the old favorite and certainly often rehearsed number was missing some vibrancy. Whether it was jet lag or too much lobster (they had waited their turn in a special stocked area, where Jagger’s children could watch the show), their set was not performed with the normal well-oiled precision that I have come to expect. I have seen the Stones four times, including the January performance of “Forty Licks” at the Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. Although the tempo accelerated with “Don’t Stop” and an unexpected sit-in with Angus Young on “Rock Me Baby”, Mick said, “Let’s slow it down a bit.” Not exactly what the crowd wanted. They may have been the headliner, but most agreed that AC/DC stole the show.

Later, my friend suggested an old-time Italian restaurant called Amato, where you could buy slices in the front and order whole pies to go, but in the back, you could order not only the delectable pies, but pasta, sandwiches, salads and entrees. There was also a small but complete bar. Master Chef, Gino Amato, has 7 locations in his chain, but there he was, at 2pm, still manning the cash register at the Queen and Bathurst spot (534 Queen St. West).

As we savored a most sumptuous pizza – a Calabrese topped with sauce, mozzarella, hot sopressata, gorgonzola, and roasted red peppers and a liter of red wine, I decided that Toronto’s PR ploy had certainly worked for me. Not only was I enjoying one of the best pies I had ever tasted, but I had experienced an historical rock’n’roll event, and the famous subway system had afforded us an orderly exodus from the park. Within minutes of the last number, friendly smiling (Wow, was everyone mellowed out?) security police, had directed us to the subway station. After the concert, both buses and subways were free. Yes, Toronto, you certainly know how to throw a party, and I, for one, will return very soon.

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