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450,000 jam Concert of a Lifetime

Stars, fans make rock history, give new life to battered city

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TORONTO -- A crush of 450,000 people -- thousands more than the population of Halifax -- descended on the grounds of an abandoned military base yesterday to write history as images of the biggest concert staged in Canada were broadcast around the world in a public declaration that Toronto's SARS outbreak is over.

World-class acts including AC/DC, Rush and The Guess Who primed the sea of sunburned fans. But it was when headliner Mick Jagger and his Rolling Stones stormed the stage that the city-for-a-day truly went wild.

Rock music's pre-eminent band, which calls Toronto a second home, broke into Start Me Up as Jagger, resplendent in a hot-pink coloured jacket, broke into his trademark prancing peacock dance.

He went on to command the crowd with a rendition of Brown Sugar. The hit may be decades old, but Jagger's energetic delivery belied the fact he turned 60 earlier in the week in Prague. Later, he turned Stones standard You Can't Always Get What You Want into a sing-along. The adoring crowd was happy to oblige.

"This is the biggest party in Toronto's history, right?" he bellowed. "You're here. We're here.

"Toronto is back and it's booming."

That was about as close as Jagger came to referring to the city's SARS problem. But later in the band's set, he thanked Toronto's health-care workers -- several thousand of whom received free tickets to the concert from the Ontario government in appreciation for their tireless work during the SARS crisis.

North America's only outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome turned Toronto into an international pariah. Tourists have stayed away in droves, frightened by reports of hundreds of cases of the disease and 42 deaths. The negative publicity is estimated to have cost the once-booming tourism and hospitality industry $2 billion in lost revenue.

This concert, sprawled across an expanse of grass and tarmac equivalent to 540 football fields called Downsview Park, was meant to prove to the world that Toronto is a safe place to visit. CNN, which regularly broadcast images of Torontonians wearing medical masks on city streets during the SARS crisis, yesterday showed the world a different view.

Reminiscent of Woodstock, it was nonetheless a truly Canadian event, with Maple Leafs emblazoned on cheeks, chests, and hats -- and the occasional butt.

The blistering sun brought out the hedonist in fans. Many men opted to face the sweltering heat shirtless, while women stripped down to bikini tops and bras -- in some cases they wore nothing at all.

One of the American acts, The Flaming Lips, was one of the few to broach the subject of SARS. Frontman Wayne Coyne pointed to people on stage wearing animal costumes and medical masks and said the masks would come off when the band started playing.

If it was meant to symbolize the city's release from the grip of the SARS crisis, the gesture appeared lost on the crowd.

Rita Drutz, from Thornhill, Ont., said the crowd around her went cold after Coyne's remarks.

"It's kind of history," she said. "It's time for us to move on."

Off stage, politicians spent the early afternoon working over hot grills at the Quarter Mile Barbecue -- adorned with U.S. and Canadian flags and signs for food items like Sticky Fingers. They also worked the media cameras desperate to show Canadian beef was safe for consumption. In a rare show of national unity, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein ate P.E.I. mussels, while Ontario Premier Ernie Eves dined on Alberta beef.

There were sweaty bodies in every direction, some sedated by their consumption of pot. The weed's scent wafted throughout the spacious grounds. Joints were smoked in some cases in the presence of police.

And just like the legendary 1969 U.S. music festival decades before there were girls gone wild, gyrating topless under a misty shower designed to keep them cool.

At one of almost a dozen beer tents, lineups were hundreds deep, and for some water wasn't any easier to find because promised refills were not provided on time. When trucks were not able to tap into city water lines, organizers tried to mollify the thirsty by distributing almost one million bottles of water.

Even as host Dan Aykroyd urged people to drink a bottle an hour to avoid dehydration in the blistering heat, some were forced to compete for water tossed in bottles from an emergency services truck.

"Every once in a while they throw out water," said Michelle Marcotte, 23, of Hamilton, frustrated because she had only one warm bottle of water left with six hours of performances to go.

Officials would not say how many fans were in distress from heat stroke and dehydration, but one frustrated paramedic, who asked not to be named, said he had been working non-stop all day responding to calls of people suffering from heat-related problems. He said a bad situation was made worse by an inability to access sick people in the impenetrable throng of concertgoers.

Some concertgoers were concerned about trampling as people tried to travel the route from concert floor to any of the 500 concession stands or 3,500 portable toilets.

But police reported no problems of that nature.

For the most part, the fans -- everyone from pre-teens born after the heyday of the headliners to people in their 50s -- moved in an orderly fashion under the watchful eye of more than 1,300 officers -- one-fifth the size of the city's entire force.

Police and organizers tried to play down any trouble, saying with a crowd that size there were bound to be some difficulties.

"It's not an issue," Senator Jerry Grafstein said early in the day. "Statistics are that there will be some people acting up but overwhelmingly it's a mellow and happy crowd."

Some concert-goers said they were overwhelmed by the thought of taking in such big-name acts as Justin Timberlake, the Stones and Rush all in one day, and also by concern about how the long day would progress.

"I'm a little dizzy," said Rebecca Elias, 22, one of the first to enter the park.

The concert -- $20 for ticketholders -- was paid for by the public and private sectors, with at least $3.5 million invested by the federal government, $2 million from Ontario and the rest from corporate sponsors, with Molson leading the pack.

Acts were paid, although organizers would not say how much.

-- Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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