15 Years Ago: AC/DC, the Rolling Stones and Rush Rock Toronto’s ‘SARSstock’
Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) killed more than three dozen Canadians in 2003, prompting the country’s biggest-ever rock concert. The Rolling Stones led the way in organizing what was unofficially known as SARSstock and SARSapalooza. AC/DC, the Guess Who and Rush were among the rock bands signed on for the event, which happened on July 30, 2003.
More than 450,000 people crowded Toronto’s Downsview Park for the show. The city’s tourism industry was suffering after the worldwide SARS outbreak affected Canada, placing a stigma on resources throughout the city. Thousands of hotel and tourism industry workers were laid off, with one local official telling the CBC that hundreds of millions of dollars were lost in just a few short months.
The World Health Organization’s travel advisory had been lifted by mid-summer, but the SARS stigma remained, prompting Mick Jagger and the Stones to whip into action. The band had frequently rehearsed in Toronto and played multiple club shows there before kicking off its major tours. (Guitarist Keith Richards was also famously arrested in Toronto in 1977.)
The concert was a mixed bag of rock with an unappreciated peppering of pop. Justin Timberlake was booed when he took the stage. Fans threw water bottles and toilet paper at him during his brief set and were only slightly more cordial when he returned to join the headliners to perform “Miss You.” An angry Richards helped his cause, but by that point many rock fans had been standing in the sun for more than 12 hours and weren’t ready to compromise their general hatred for pop music.
AC/DC played a 70-minute set that included many of their hits. At least one reviewer called their performance the best of the night. Guitarist Angus Young returned to join the Rolling Stones onstage for a cover of B.B. King’s “Rock Me Baby.” Prior to that set was a 30-minute performance by local heroes Rush. “We’re used to playing three-hour sets,” Geddy Lee said, according to Canoe.ca. “Believe me, 30 minutes is refreshingly short for us.”
The Guess Who, the Isley Brothers, the Flaming Lips and Canadian rocker Sass Jordan also played. Dan Aykroyd hosted the event, which was partially broadcast by the CBC and MuchMoreMusic. The SARS epidemic touched 37 countries before fading by mid-2003. Of the more than 8,000 confirmed SARS cases, 775 resulted in fatalities.
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