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Star-studded concert gives Toronto a boost

By Canadian Press, The Globe and Mail, June 21st, 2003.

Music seemed to be just what the doctor ordered for Torontonians frustrated at a disease that accidentally found its way to Canada's largest city and made citizens out to be pariahs.

Any tension created when SARS reared its head in Toronto in mid-March seemed to float away Saturday at a six-hour, star-studded marathon of music and massive pep rally to help promote the city in the wake of a SARS-related drop in morale and tourism.

For many, the event's highlight came when two grown men—the Barenaked Ladies' Steven Page and Ed Robertson—performed the Chicken Dance wearing hospital masks in front of 70,000 people gathered at the Concert for Toronto. Clapping along, the crowd went wild, cheering enthusiastically.

Page dedicated the Toronto band's performance to health-care and hospitality workers who have felt the brunt of the SARS fallout.

A freewheeling, silly group, the Ladies also rapped a memorable ditty about SARS that included the line, "I hate SARS more than I hate Mars." The chorus was a cheerleader-style "Gimme an S, gimme an A," and so on.

"What does that spell?" the band asked.

"SARS," shouted the crowd.

"What ya gonna do?"

"Quarantine," the crowd and band yelled in unison.

But most acts kept the SARS comments brief. Vancouver's hip hop crew Swollen Members got the party started at 3 p.m. with an infectious set at the SkyDome, one of two venues where the concert took place simultaneously.

"Are we starting to feel good?" asked singer Prevail.

Swollen Members was followed by Sum 41, Our Lady Peace, Avril Lavigne, the Barenaked Ladies and the Tragically Hip at the Skydome where 50,000 people were gathered.

Remy Shand, Glenn Lewis, Jann Arden, Diana Krall and Sarah McLachlan sang for a crowd of 20,000 at the Air Canada Centre.

Concert-goers were able to watch all the acts as performances alternated between the two venues, linked via a live satellite feed shown on a giant screen.

Many in attendance said they hoped the show would restore the city's spirits, demoralized by the stigma of the disease which has killed 36, sickened hundreds and required thousands to be quarantined in a bid to stop its spread.

"(SARS) is really overblown. Toronto's got a really bad image right now so we have to bring it up again," said concert-goer Carol Doornecamp from Toronto, who watched from the Air Canada Centre.

Her sentiments were echoed throughout the day.

"Today is about celebrating the greatest city in the world," shouted Toronto Argonauts' head coach and guest host Mike (Pinball) Clemons from the SkyDome.

"We thank you for putting your hands together and helping make Toronto SARS-free and restoring the cheer," said Our Lady Peace's Raine Maida.

"There's nothing to scare me from coming back (to Toronto)," said Jann Arden during her set.

Bringing more humour to the sensitive topic of SARS was singer Derick Whibley of punk-pop act Sum 41, who pretended to cough between songs. A dry cough is one of the first symptoms of the illness.

Organized by the city and the province as a ploy to draw visitors to Toronto and counter the economic sting of SARS, the show's 70,000 tickets sold out in three hours.

Performance highlights included I Will Remember You sung by McLachlan, back onstage after a hiatus to have a child. She was joined by Arden and Krall.

Seated at a baby grand during her set, Krall brought some musical diversity to the mostly pop and rock event with a smooth, sultry jazz performance.

Our Lady Peace put on a loud, aggressive show as did Sum 41 and Lavigne. The Tragically Hip concluded the event with an earnest, passionate set, filled with hits from their 20-year career, including New Orleans is Sinking.

Most acts filled their 30 to 40-minute time slot with singles, allowing even those not familiar with some of the performers to follow the show. The crowd's energy didn't seem to diminish despite the lengthy concert; it seemed to strengthen in the final hour thanks in large part to McLachlan and the Hip.

Canada's largest city, typically brimming with tourists during the spring and summer, has suffered from the stigma of SARS since it broke out in mid-March with many too afraid of the disease to visit. Officials have said the city has lost millions of tourism dollars.

Few Saturday seemed concerned about getting sick.

"They say it is almost impossible to get SARS, so I'll take my chances here," said Steve Salfi from Niagara Falls, Ont.

"Toronto's fine. We're getting (SARS) under control," said Joanne Shokoff, a health-care worker from Aurora, Ont., who was given free tickets because of her profession.

It was unclear just how many concert-goers were out-of-towners staying in hotels and eating in restaurants and how many were visiting from neighbouring municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area.

For the most part, the two-venue system was a successful way to merge two stadiums although there were a few technical glitches early in the day including the sound and picture being out of sync by a few seconds.

However, with ticket prices for the all-Canadian show dirt cheap at $29.50 and $19.50 (compared with other summer concerts that tend to run over $50), no one could complain.

Torontonians will be rocking away SARS again later in the summer. The Rolling Stones are slated to put on a free gig on July 30 at a waterfront venue. Details of the concert will be unveiled next week.