On August 18th, 1993 I went to Exhibition Stadium in Toronto to what could have been (and in many ways was) an epic day of music. Blues Traveler, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and the great Neil Young who was fronting Booker T & the MG’s, all in an outdoor stadium on a beautiful day. It was a dreamy lineup, one of the world’s top harmonica players opening for two of the biggest grunge acts going (aside from Nirvana of course), topped off with the Granddaddy of Grunge himself Neil Young, playing a hometown show with a group of musical legends in his backup band.
The problem was the sound. From my seats a third of the way up the southern bleachers the sound was probably the worst I’ve heard at a concert. John Popper’s instrumental flurries were lost on me as the wind carried his harmonica notes out of the stadium and over Lake Ontario. Soundgarden is a thick sounding band at the best of times, and with little sonic clarity it all sounded like a wash of distortion.
The sound was no better for the amazing Pearl Jam, but during their set something incredible happened. Throughout the afternoon security guys stood just feet apart protecting the perimeter of the floor section. The red-shirts stood menacingly at the gates and the fences, almost daring someone to make a move, while in the stands virtually everyone was eyeing the floor as a great place to be.
Early into their set Pearl Jam was kicking things out hard when a guy made a break for it. In a bound the dude jumps the fence and hits the floor running. Instantly a dozen security guys take pursuit, abandoning their posts and leaving an entire section unguarded.
Grasping the opportunity a thousand people stormed the gates at once, flooding onto the floor en masse while even more security guards gave chase to the original infiltrator. For some reason I decided to stay where I was, and from my perch I saw the sacrificial lamb get caught and pulled from the crowd by a dozen poorly-trained security dudes, while more and more people freely ran onto the floor section.
An image that stands in my mind is one redshirt security guy who held his ground at one of the gates. He knew there was no holding the crowd back so he just stood there, his raised hands a symbolic gesture against the rushing crowd. Hundreds of people poured past him, some guys even even high-fived him as he stood frozen in a moot show of holding down his post.
I don’t know why I didn’t join the crowd on the floor, certainly the sound didn’t get any better where I was siiting for Neil Young’s set.
And that’s too bad – checking the setlist online I see song after song that would have pleased me to no end, if only I could hear them. I cupped my hands over my ears to make out strains of Mr. Soul, Powderfinger, Harvest Moon and Down By The River, and all with Steve Cropper on guitar and Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass. Neil encored with a couple of cover songs, Dock Of The Bay and All Along The Watchtower but the true highlight of the entire day was the final song, Eddie Vedder joining Neil and the band on the new rock and roll anthem Rockin’ In The Free World.
I barely heard it but it was so good that just seeing it was enough.
Years later I was sitting in a bar when I saw the demolition the old Exhibition Stadium on television silently flickering in the corner. Though I’ve seen some great shows in that monstrosity I thought of the horrible, horrible sound and raised my beer to the TV.
“Good riddance,” I said to no one in particular.