In 2003, Toronto was caught in the middle of a worldwide epidemic of the SARS virus. A woman travelling from Hong Kong initially brought the virus to Ontario, eventually infecting 257 individuals in the province. The World Health Organization added Toronto to the list of infected areas, and consequently the hospitality and tourism industry in the city plummeted.
While many artists with tour dates in the city cancelled or moved their shows, The Rolling Stones decided to make their Toronto show something special. The band has a long history with the city of Toronto, traditionally performing warm-up shows at small clubs like the Pheonix or the Palais Royale before setting off on major tours. The connection to Toronto inspired them to give back to the city and put on a benefit concert to help out the city’s struggling economy.
Organized in just a month, “Toronto Rocks” (which came to be called “SARSStock” by most) broke the record for the largest outdoor ticketed event in Canadian history. Held at Downsview Park, a former military base in the north end of the city, the event is estimated to have held between 450,000 to 500,000 people.
The roster of bands included a then newcomer Sam Roberts, Kathleen Edwards, The Tea Party, The Flaming Lips, The Isley Brothers, Blue Rodeo, Justin Timberlake, The Guess Who, Rush, AC/DC, and, of course, The Rolling Stones.
Volunteers from the city served Alberta beef in support of the Canadian beef industry which was also suffering due to a case of mad cow disease. North York General Hospital, which was one of the hardest hit by SARS, provided emergency on-site services. The show was broadcasted across the country on the CBC and MuchMoreMusic. It was even broadcasted to Canadian Forces men and women in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Egypt, and the HMCS Fredericton stationed in the Persian Gulf.
The Rolling Stones donated 50 percent of the proceeds (an estimated $1.3 million) of their merchandise sales to two relief funds set up for the event, and $1 per ticket was also donated towards the funds. The net proceeds of official merchandise was also donated towards the relief funds.