Going into the 25th anniversary of Toronto’s Budweiser Stage — known until 2017 as Molson Amphitheatre, Live Nation Canada (LNC) and Budweiser Canada have announced a number of initiatives to improve the fan experience, including a $750 lawn season pass and pre and post-show premium spaces, such as an amenities platform off the lawn, rooftop level at the Amex Lounge, and a third level members lounge with a clear view of the city skyline. The on-site River Bar will also program more developing homegrown talent.
Last year, for the 2018 season, they did a wi-fi upgrade and installed a new sound system for the lawn.
At a press announcement, held Wednesday (March 20) at The Lounge of Live Nation, Joey Scoleri, head of industry relations for Live Nation Toronto, emceed the proceedings, which featured brief comments and reflections from Live Nation Canada chairman Riley O’Connor; Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy; Live Nation Toronto president Erik Hoffman; and Labatt Breweries of Canada marketing VP, Todd Allen.
“We're going to celebrate 25 years of what I see as one of the most iconic venues in North America,” said Scoleri off the top. “The Budweiser Stage is something that I don't think people get because if you haven't traveled around the world, you don't understand how it fits into the local community and the Canadian fabric. What I mean by that is, I lived in Los Angeles for 20 years, so I got to go to the Hollywood Bowl. I've gone to Red Rocks [in Colorado]. I've been to the Gorge [in Washington]. These are iconic venues. And Budweiser Stage ranks right up there.
“Having lived in America for 20 years, and being Canadian and growing up here, there's a sense of community in the Canadian music industry that's second to none,” he added. “You look at the number of Canadian bands that played this venue, that doesn't happen in Cleveland, in Chicago, in New York, not to this extent. It's a uniquely Canadian thing. We should be proud of this and how this venue is a crown jewel in this country’s musical pantheon.”
With that, he invited up O’Connor to go over some of the hard facts about the venue and the legends that have performed on the stage the past 25 years.
“One of the most outstanding things I can say since I’ve been working here is that we’ve always focused on building something special, making something unique to our environment and our community, and hopefully giving back in terms of having good times,” O’Connor began.
Since Bryan Adams opened the amphitheatre on May 18, 1995, 8 million fans have come through the gates for some 850 concerts — from James Brown to Whitney Houston, Metallica to Eric Clapton, David Bowie to Andrea Bocelli — and about 100 of those shows have been headlined by Canadian acts, including the aforementioned Adams, Rush, Neil Young, Drake and his OVO Fest, The Tragically Hip, Arkells, Celine Dion, and, most notably, 19 by Toronto’s own Blue Rodeo.
“Last year Budweiser Stage set a record of 54 concerts and 770,000 people attending,” O’Connor said.
This season will kick off May 20 with The Strokes, the band’s only Canadian date (so far) this summer, and the band's first in Toronto in over a decade.
Other 2019 concerts are two by Alexisonfire, a first-time appearance by Corey Hart; and the return of five 1995-first season performers, Jimmy Buffett, Hootie and the Blowfish, Sarah McLachlan (with a symphony orchestra), Bryan Adams, and Blue Rodeo. Also on the calendar are Iron Maiden, The 1975, Phish, Beck, Cage The Elephant, Santana, Heart, Korn, Chris Stapleton, Luke Bryan, and Smashing Pumpkins with Noel Gallagher.
“When the promoter team here got together at the beginning of the fall — when we embark on thinking about the season — of course it’s the 25th year, we knew we had to do a better than ever,” said Hoffman. “We have to attract the biggest acts, get the most tickets sold and bring the most folks down to Ontario Place. But it was more than that. That's kind of a no brainer. We wanted to challenge ourselves a little further. We wanted to diversify the line-up and introduce as many genres we could into the program.
“Beyond the 35-plus shows that are already announced and on sale, we have many more coming in the coming weeks and months, and those genres will include comedy and Latin and everything else that we can think of along the way. So it's to going to be an amazing season,” Hoffman continued, adding that there will be more Canadian acts headlining and in support slots, many on the Budweiser Stage for the first time.”
Also, in the lead up to the season opener, Labatt’s Todd Allen announced an interactive pop-up exhibit at 950 Queen Street West in Toronto, entitled It Happened Here, to highlight and recap some of the stories behind the venue’s 25-year history. Running April 25 to May 4, it will feature photographs, memorabilia and installations. Admission is free, but all the money from Budweiser sales will go to the music education charity MusiCounts.
Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy has many memories of his own. He recalled playing the Forum, the rotating stage free with admission to the then-theme park Ontario Place. His dad, he recounts, was an engineer and “more comfortable with numbers.” He would look at how many cars were in the parking to gauge Blue Rodeo’s popularity. “My dad was very worried about the longevity of our success,” Cuddy mused. But when the ticketed Molson Amphitheatre opened, he could easily see they had paying fans.
Over 19 headlining shows, Cuddy’s kids have grown up in this facility, at one time more interested in playing the arcade games than watching their dad perform, but later watched the shows and brought their friends, Cuddy said. “And then, ultimately, my eldest son has played on the stage, so it encompasses a greater part of their life.”
He noted, “There was a time when, as our particular audience aged, I worried, ‘Is this the right venue for them?’ And what happened was there was a whole culture that grew up on the lawn. I would hear from people that would choose to be on the lawn because get to come en masse, 20 of them, whole families would come, they would make this a yearly event…
“As Joey said, not every place in the world has this. Not every place has this opportunity to create these longstanding family traditions. For me, it created, obviously, the opportunity for my band, our band, to reach an audience that wants to see you on a yearly basis and create this beautiful tradition of coming here.”
Cuddy also told his own “personal best rock memory” from when Blue Rodeo played Molson Amphitheatre with Kris Kristofferson that would lose the coolness in a retelling here, but part of it includes a comment the American singer and actor made to him during the encore: “You know Jim, sometimes the good guys win.”
“And I think that that applies to you Riley and all the people that have worked here,” Cuddy said. “Sometimes the good guys do win. We've always come here and realized that everybody's on our side. And it just turns into a really special event every year. That's not easy to do. And I applaud you for 25 years of doing this.
“I’m absolutely sure we’ve played here more than 19 times because we started the first year. We’ve only missed a couple of years so that we can check that. If my dad were alive, he’d have that stat.”