In 2003, Canada was going through a scarily similar situation as to what the world finds itself in today albeit on a much more acute scale. Over three dozen people died from SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which resulted in thousands of Canadians quarantining, with people being scared to visit the country because of the viral disease — a situation which feels a little close to the bone these days. The event led to a huge concert featuring Rush, The Rolling Stones and AC/DC to show things had finally returned back to normal.
At a time when concerts as we traditionally knew them still feel like light-years away, this gig is one that feels poignantly relevant to revisit and shows that things will at some point return to how we loved. The mammoth benefit show took place on July 30th, 2003, and was officially titled Molson Canadian Rocks for Toronto although it was widely called SARSAid or SARSStock.
It remains one of the largest shows to have ever been staged in North America with around 500,000 music lovers flocking to Toronto’s Downsview Park in a showing of solidarity and for the joy of live music. Tickets sold out almost immediately as fans counted down the days for one of Canada’s greatest celebrations of unity.
The concert, which was hosted by Dan Aykroyd, had a true community feeling of togetherness to it with Dan food spots selling Alberta beef in support of the Canadian beef industry, a portion of the economy that had recently been put on its knees because of a case of mad cow disease. In addition to that, North York General Hospital, which had been hit the hardest by the SARS outbreak, was on hand to provide emergency on-site hospital services.
There were several incredible moments such as The Rolling Stones set which was the perfect way to end the day of festivities as well as AC/DC and Rush both putting on spectacles. Justin Timberlake was also booed by the baying rock-orientated audience who had little interest in hearing the dulcet tones that the former Mickey Mouse Club presenter had to offer.
Rush’s inclusion was a last-minute one and saw the band break tradition of not performing when they are not on a touring cycle. However, they just couldn’t refuse to perform at this huge event in their hometown. The band blitzed through an electrifying eight-song set which included a frantic 70-second cover of ‘Paint It Black’ before they hurled into the final song in the set, ‘The Spirit of Radio’.
The Canadians did actually intended to perform ‘Working Man’ as an encore after ‘Spirit’ but a production mix-up prevented it from happening. “At the end of ‘The Spirit of Radio,’ we ran offstage, waiting to see if we should play an encore or not,” Neil Peart wrote in his book Traveling Music.
“Everyone was supposed to know about that plan, but somebody obviously didn’t. Taped music started playing over the P.A. as if our set was over, and stagehands began walking onstage to strike the gear. We were still standing at the side of the stage, tensed for action but not knowing what to do, when Alex turned to go, saying, ‘Forget it. It would be embarrassing to go back on now.’ He was right. It was over.”
In 2003, the band gave the honour of their encore to The Rolling Stones, perhaps in some sort of homage or, more likely, because they really wanted to play the track.
Check out their short but sweet cover of The Stones, below.