5 Historic Toronto Concerts

Re-live some Toronto history through groundbreaking live musical events.

It can be somewhat startling to find out that your hometown is of historical importance.

Toronto does not easily identify as a major player in the history of live music. Names like Woodstock, Altamont, Haight Ashbury, and Monterey essentially dominate the lexicon. However, let’s dig a little and discover our own history. In fact, Toronto concerts have had a very significant part to play in the history of North American pop music, from being on the shocked receiving end of American sounds to hosting events that are significant in their own right. It’s been an evolution.

What’s important to remember is that we have the demographics that are key to supporting all kinds of musical events, whether they come from across the border or the next street over. These five concerts from Toronto’s past, spanning from 1957 to 2003, show Toronto’s evolution and importance when it comes to the history of popular music.

Elvis

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Elvis only ever did one tour outside of the United States. In 1957, he travelled from Toronto to Ottawa to Vancouver. Unused to rock music and youth entertainment, the city placed 125 police officers at the venue. Further, the media were disgusted by Elvis’s music, pelvic shakes, and, most of all, by the very idea of a sexualized audience of teenage girls (a new phenomenon, and described very orgasmically in the papers.) Toronto wasn’t ready for baby boomers and their music, but it was coming.
Photo from the York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections

The O’Keefe Series


Only ten years later, Toronto the Good had a thriving “youth scene” that was cool enough to tempt a famous concert promoter, Bill Graham, to bring an edgy new style of music from San Francisco up to Canada: psychedelic pop. In late July, 1967, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airoplane, and Luke and the Apostles played a free concert in Nathan Philips Square before starting a series of 5 paying gigs at the O’Keefe. The Dead nearly broke up from the stress of the shows and the expectations, but the crowd danced in the aisles, ate candy thrown from the stage, and were probably more than a bit high. The series was a success, and afterwards psychedelic rock began to replace blues and folk as the go-to genre for musicians in Toronto.

Toronto Rock and Roll Revival


Legend has it that this 1969 concert was the tipping point for the Beatles. Yoko Ono confused the audience with her singing and John Lennon was a surprise guest on the bill, but there was more going on than that during this 12 hour concert at Varsity Stadium. For example, it was the site of Alice Cooper’s infamous chicken incident. Suddenly, popular music wasn’t just coming to Toronto, the city’s scene was big enough to host events that belonged in the cannon of popular music.

The Ontario Place Punk Rock Riot of 1980

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Probably one of the most infamous concert events on the list, and one inspired entirely by a Canadian band. On June 2, 1980, a throng of young people rioted at Ontario Place to see Teenage Head, a successful punk band out of Hamilton. Essentially, the free open-air concert was over capacity and the gates were shut before everyone could get in. The pissed-off crowd threw bottles and expressed anger, police were called in, and the band basically ran away as soon as their set was over. Afterwards, Ontario Place banned “hard rock” music from its grounds for years, but the local punk scene gained a hell of a lot of street cred.
Photo by Barrie Davis / The Globe and Mail Originally published June 3, 1980

SARSfest


The hindsight of history makes SARSfest look like a parody of Live Aid and other fundraising concerts so popular in the 90s, but it was also a show that was huge in scale. In 2003, someone (Keith Richards) thought it would be a great idea to hold a SARS benefit concert in the former military base that is Downsview Park, when meanwhile, the WHO still had the city under a health alert. No matter. July 2003, 450,000 people showed up to “revive Toronto’s economy” in what become the largest outdoor ticketed event in Canada’s history, and one of the 10 largest concerts in North America. It was hosted by Dan Akroyd and, at a key moment, the Rolling Stones defended Justin Timberlake after he was booed by the crowd. Alberta beef was also served, in a PR move after the stinging Mad Cow crisis. If anything, this concert underscored the new relationship between economy and music and how popular music in Toronto has, in many ways, stopped being threatening and become an industry.