Aural History: Backstage stories from the legendary Budweiser Stage

Aural History

Since its first show (Bryan Adams, May 1995, sell-out crowd), Budweiser Stage has been synonymous with summer and stars both celestial and musical. As the venue kicks off its 30th season, we asked performers and staff for their best, wildest, most indelible memories of the amphitheatre by the lake

Interviews by Karen Bliss and Stuart Berman| Photography by Tom Pandi/Budweiser Stage
| May 21, 2024

When the Forum at Ontario Place was demolished in 1994 to make way for a shiny amphitheatre, fans mourned the loss of the venue’s famous revolving stage and free summertime shows. But the new Molson Amphitheatre’s improved sound, sightlines and seating, plus an inaugural slate of artists that included R.E.M., Megadeth and Boyz II Men, quickly drowned out complaints. (As it turned out, Toronto concert-goers were willing to pay to be rocked, socked and serenaded.) Canada’s answer to the Hollywood Bowl and Red Rocks, the Amp—known as Budweiser Stage since 2017—has hosted about a thousand shows and more than eight million fans over the past three decades. It has become Drake’s warm-weather home base, featured a purple-robed David Bowie, contended with flocks of dive-bombing seagulls and had a metalhead truly deserving of the name fished from its waters. The stories from the stage are legion, and we’ve collected 22 of them below.


Jim Cuddy
Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images
Jim Cuddy

Blue Rodeo

Bryan Adams opened the amphitheatre in May of 1995, and Blue Rodeo had a show a few weeks later, so we were one of the first bands to play there. We had great affection for the Forum, the venue that had been there previously. It was comfortable and homey, and people were very close to you. When we first viewed the amphitheatre, we thought, Oh my god, this place is huge—plus it sounded weird at soundcheck because it was so empty. We’re not a band that responds to change very well, so there was a lot of grumbling backstage. But, like all the times we’ve played there since, we had an amazing night. It was sold out, and everybody seemed to be having a blast. That changed our minds: we came back to the dressing rooms saying, “Oh, this place is pretty great.” Bands are so shallow, right? A bit of adoration from the crowd changes your whole mindset. Over the years, our annual end-of-summer concert has become an event that people put in their calendars. I ride my bike along the waterfront to get to the show. My kids grew up seeing bands on the lawn, which they loved. People go out there, and if it’s not too full they can put a blanket down, and if it is they’re elbow to elbow. They have their own little society out there. My boys are both musicians now, and they’ve been on that stage with us, so the family tradition continues.


Chris Murphy
Photo by Michelle Siu/Canadian Press
Chris Murphy

Sloan

Sloan unofficially broke up at the end of 1994. We’d had it with one another; our second album was a failure; and our drummer, Andrew Scott, had moved away from Halifax to Toronto, which pissed me off. In early 1995, we were finishing up the gigs we’d already agreed to, and then Edgefest was like, “Why don’t you do a final show?” At the time we thought we were so cool and that the idea was too mainstream, so we agreed to do it only if we could choose most of the bands on the bill. But we were so disorganized. We revelled in being ramshackle. When Brother Bill, the DJ from CFNY, announced us with, “Would you please welcome to the stage…SLOAAAAN!” I was still in the bathroom. Back then it was a calling card to be as amateurish as possible. The idea of being on time or slick or in tune was the old way of doing things. Besides, the band was basically done—we didn’t intend to make another record. But then we went backstage and were surprised with gold records of our debut album, Smeared. That encouraged us to rethink our break-up and keep going. We’re still together today.


Raine Maida
Photo by Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Raine Maida

Our Lady Peace

We’ve played a bunch of shows at the amphitheatre, including two nights opening for Van Halen in August of 1995. The Toronto gigs came toward the end of what was a tough tour for Our Lady Peace—the Van Halen fans were not interested in our music. After dozens of shows of people giving me the finger, I was excited to be back in my hometown. But, as soon as I walked backstage, I was hit by an overwhelming smell of garlic. It made me want to throw up—and I’m Italian! It turned out that Alex Van Halen had seen a doctor who told him to drink four ounces of garlic juice a day for the herniated discs in his neck. I have two herniated discs in my back from doing martial arts as a kid, so Alex and I bonded over that on the road—a very un-rock-and-roll conversation. I have to believe that everyone who came to play at the amphitheatre later that summer could still smell Alex’s garlic. Otherwise, the night was great. We had tons of family at the show, the weather was sunny and warm—it was the ultimate homecoming. And not one person gave us the finger.


Broken Social Scene playing the Budweiser Stage
Canning (left) plays bass, guitar and keyboard in indie darling Broken Social Scene, which has been both an opening act and a headliner (seen here in 2018) at Bud Stage
Brendan Canning

Broken Social Scene

My first time playing at the amphitheatre was Edgefest in 1995, with my old band hHead. I remember that, when Odds were playing, I went onstage on my bicycle and rode laps around them. Then Broken Social Scene played there in 2018, and we opened for Boygenius last summer. I consider myself lucky to be gainfully employed as a musician and getting fun gigs on big stages. This one is especially nice to play at, down by the water. It really takes you back to being a teenager and going to big rock concerts. I saw a Phish show there. They were doing their rendition of Eumir Deodato’s version of the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme—one of those ’70s soul-funk jams—and I looked behind me, and everyone had huge shit-eating grins. I thought, What am I missing here? Then I took some mushrooms and understood.


Alex Lifeson
Photo by Mike Coppola/T.J. Martell Foundation/Getty Images
Alex Lifeson

Rush

The gigs were magical—beautiful summer nights spent looking out over the audience. But there are a couple of standouts, as a performer and a fan. In 1998, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were in town. Geddy Lee and I went backstage before the show and chatted with them for a bit. We reminisced about Led Zeppelin dates in Toronto that we’d gone to as teens and how exciting they were for us. Then Page and Plant set up a beautiful little spot by the monitors so we could watch the show from there. Years later, we were the ones playing, and Gordon Lightfoot came with his daughter, who wanted to meet the band. They arrived just before we went on, and it was the first time I met Gordon. I’m a huge fan, so spending time with him was very cool.


Feist
Photo by Jim Cooper/Canadian Press
Feist

The first time I played there was in 1999. I was in By Divine Right, and we opened for Barenaked Ladies. In 2013, I sat in with Wilco when they were opening for Bob Dylan. Broken Social Scene has also played there. Ontario Place as a whole is such a special spot. Budweiser Stage is a way to check in on that, to sneak around and see what once was. There’s nothing better than sitting on the lawn under the summer stars and watching a band.


Tegan and Sara
Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Tegan and Sara

Sara Quin: We opened for Neil Young, along with The Pretenders, in 2000. We were teenagers, and it was the first outdoor show we played in Canada. The location was stunning.

Tegan Quin: We went to the CNE with Eddie Vedder and Chrissie Hynde afterward. We started off on the ferris wheel, but then we told them we wanted something fun, like a roller coaster. We wanted speed and vomit. Eddie just said, “Damn, cool.”


Paul Langlois
Photo by Mark Horton/Getty Images
Paul Langlois

The Tragically Hip

Bud Stage is in such a cool section of Toronto, and we got nice summer days every time we played. After soundcheck, we’d chill out by the water, and our kids would be running around the venue, in heaven. We were lucky enough to have pretty full crowds—seeing people all the way up to the grass made everything feel festival-like.


Erik Hoffman

Live Nation President, Music, Canada

We’ve had some hardcore fans. In 2018, Slayer came to Toronto on what was supposed to be their final tour. The bill was stacked—a real who’s who of that era of thrash metal, like Anthrax and Testament. This one dude came early and got kicked out for unruly behavior, but nothing too dark. Then he did what you do if you’re a diehard fucking metal fan: he jumped in the water and started swimming back across. Someone alerted me, and my first thought was, Amazing. We watched him from the bands’ dressing rooms. I told the staff to let him back in. He’d put in the effort.


Backstage stories from the legendary Budweiser Stage
Photo by Vanessa Heins
Dallas Green

Alexisonfire and City and Colour

Growing up in St. Catharines, my friends and I would get older brothers or cousins or parents to drive us into the city for shows at the Amp. The first time Alexisonfire played there was in 2004, for Edgefest. We went on very early—some time in mid-afternoon—to nobody. But, walking out on stage, I appreciated how vast the space was, how monolithic. It felt like a massive congregation ground. Fast forward about a decade to 2023, and I played shows both with Alexisonfire and as City and Colour, my solo project. I sold out the space with two different acts in one summer—that blows me away when I think of the kid I once was. But my favourite memory is of playing in 2010 as City and Colour. Gord Downie was there, and I asked him to come up for the encore to sing our song, “Sleeping Sickness.” A friend of mine took a candid shot of me and Gord sitting on a couch in one of the green rooms. It’s a cherished possession and now hangs in my studio.


Benjamin Kowalewicz
Benjamin Kowalewicz

Billy Talent

In 2002, I was working at 102.1 the Edge. I was part of a team sent to interview David Bowie, who was in town for Moby’s Area2 music festival. That same morning, Billy Talent had gotten a call saying that Busta Rhymes couldn’t get across the border and asking if we would take his place at the festival the following night. At that point, we’d only played bars and clubs—our debut album hadn’t even come out yet. Of course we said yes. After the interview, Bowie asked me for a light for his cigarette, and I told him that my band was going to be part of the show. He said he’d be sure to check us out. The next night, we pulled up to the venue in our drummer’s mom’s minivan. We’d never played anywhere big, and now we were on a weird bill that included Blue Man Group and Moby and Bowie. During our set, I looked over by the stairs and there was David fucking Bowie, wearing a purple robe and giving me a thumbs up. He’d kept his promise to a goofy kid.


Adrian Walker

General Manager, Budweiser Stage

The challenges keep my job ­interesting—it’s never the same day twice. The weather throws us for a loop constantly, with thunderstorms and heavy rains. We’ve had to figure out how to keep seagulls from dive-bombing people for food. In 2012, we brought in a wildlife specialist, and now we have a hawk to scare off the birds. They aren’t hurt—the hawk stays with its handler, and its presence is intimidating enough. A lot of the artists think it’s really cool. We’ve done OVO Fest for years. Drake sells out arenas around the world, but our space is very different from that. There’s a lot that goes into the logistics. In 2017, he had a 16-metre-tall replica of the CN Tower in his show, with an elevator inside to bring him to the top for his first song. It was a commissioned piece co-created with a set production company in the States. The replica was meant to be a surprise, which is great, except we’re not an arena where you can shut the doors and build in secret. So we had very tight security, and no one could take photos. But it worked. People went crazy when the big reveal happened.


Tom Pandi
Photo by Budweiser Stage
Tom Pandi

Venue Photographer

This will be my 11th season shooting the venue, not counting the pandemic years. Backstage is off-limits, and the artists decide whether you can shoot their event—you have to put in a request every time. I usually get permission for three songs, and then I might wander around and get some shots of the fans. I look forward to big productions that have pyro and fun set designs, like Kiss or Slipknot. In 2019, Iron Maiden showed up with a replica of a Second World War Spitfire flying above the band. That same year, when the Raptors won the championship, Drake had a massive replica of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy onstage. I gotta tell you, Drake makes my job tricky: lots of dark-blue or dark-red lighting, and he’s super energetic physically. The camera has a hard time focusing, and you spend the 10 minutes you have chasing Drake to try to get an iconic shot of him in the moment. He can put me through my paces. Paul Stanley of Kiss, however, will go over to each of the photographers in the pit, stick out his tongue and play to them. He knows it’s free publicity. Some of my favourite shots are of audience members—I’m always impressed with the outfits. Women wearing bald caps and business suits for the Pitbull show. Flamboyant Boy George look-alikes. Ghoulish blood-covered nurses’ outfits for Rob Zombie. And the cowboy hats and boots and plaids for the country jamborees. It’s an adventure.


Geddy Lee
Geddy Lee

Rush

Rush played a bunch of shows at the amphitheatre—we’ve experienced profound emotions and triumphs in that space. One of my standout memories was from a night I wasn’t even there: it was on a Wednesday evening in 2015, when Foo Fighters were headlining. Dave Grohl had recently fractured his leg, and he was sitting on a custom throne. At stage left was Dave’s mom, Ginny, and her special guest: my mother, Mary. The two of them had become friends during an interview for Ginny’s book about moms of rock stars. During the show, the Foos broke into a rendition of “Tom Sawyer,” and my 90-year-old mom started beaming from ear to ear. I was on tour in the US, and my phone blew up with photos and videos sent by folks who were in the crowd.


Lionel Richie
Lionel Richie

“Dancing on the Ceiling” without the ceiling is an incredible experience. Everything just felt bigger, better and louder when I was up on that stage. The energy from the crowd was unmatched—I remember points in the night when I couldn’t even hear myself singing, the crowd was so loud.


Jimmy Shaw
Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images
Jimmy Shaw

Metric

I hope I can’t get arrested retroactively for this: when I was a kid, my friends and I used to break into Ontario Place late on Friday nights and go sit on the stage of the Forum. I’ve always had a cool relationship with that space—it’s quintessential Toronto to me. One of the few times Metric ever performed “Eclipse (All Yours),” the song we wrote with Howard Shore for the third Twilight movie, was at the amphitheatre in 2010. We had a little string orchestra and the amazing Toronto pianist Todor Kobakov. We came back to the venue in 2022 and brought Spoon and Interpol from the States to play with us. Sharing that stage with them was beautiful and intense—I had tremendous hometown pride. When you tour a lot, it’s hard for every show to be meaningful, and it’s wonderful when it is. After the show, our entire guest list, which was a couple hundred people, gathered upstairs in the restaurant and bar area. None of us are 20 years old anymore, so it stayed fairly calm, but it went on until two or three in the morning. Most venues are super aggressive about kicking you out as soon as the show is over, but the staff were really chill and let us have an awesome night with our friends and family.


K-OS
K-OS

The first time I set foot on the amphi­theatre’s stage was in July of 2005, for the soundcheck of my Joyful Rebellion tour. John Legend—who opened for me, which is wild to think about now—was on the piano. I remember looking out the side curtain later and watching people stream in. OVO ended up becoming a staple in the space, but I was one of the first Canadian hip-hop acts to play there. I had never played a venue like that in my life, plus the show was being taped. I was like a deer in the headlights, but the energy was awesome. The amphi­theatre teaches you a lot about how to perform—it’s huge, and you’ve got to use that space. Also, if you’re onstage before sunset, you’re not staring out at a group in the dark. You’re looking at people who are looking back at you. You end up wondering, Why are those people leaving? or Why does that person have a perplexed look on their face? It’s real! I’ve seen a lot of artists perform there: Lil Wayne, Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip. A girl once took me to see a country show—Tim McGraw, I think. The venue attracts very different performers and crowds. It’s a testament to how anything can happen there.


Haviah Mighty
Photo by Frank Gunn/Canadian Press
Haviah Mighty

I opened for Arkells over three nights in 2021. I was astounded just being in front of the biggest crowd I’d ever performed for. But there’s actually a sense of freedom that comes with performing in front of a sea of people. You push yourself and your music into the space and hope that everyone is with you. I learned a lot through the experience of playing three shows in a row—I got better by Sunday!


Billy Corgan
Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images
Billy Corgan

The Smashing Pumpkins

My family and I were there last year during the air show. I got to stand along the shore with my kids and take in an impressive display of power and perform at a venue where our band has had truly great shows. For such a large outdoor space, it feels unusually intimate.


Max Kerman
Max Kerman

Arkells

I’m a lifelong Raptors fan. Shortly after the championship win in 2019, on a lark, I reached out to friends who worked with the Raptors and said, “We’re playing Budweiser Stage. Would Nick Nurse want to join us for Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),’ which feels like an appropriate tune for the occasion?” I didn’t think he’d be down because it’s a ridiculous ask, but he agreed. He’d been practising guitar but had never played onstage before. He joked that he was more nervous for that than for game six of the finals. We weren’t sure it was going to happen until the day of, so we kept it quiet. When Nick showed up to soundcheck, our horn section was like, “What the fuck is going on here?!” When I announced him to the crowd, people’s heads exploded. Having those two moments intersect—the championship celebrations and our show at Budweiser—was one of the coolest moments of my career.


Deborah Cox
Photo by Udo Salters/Getty Images
Deborah Cox

I saw some of my biggest inspirations—Gladys Knight, Tina Turner, the Commodores, Kool and the Gang, Whitney Houston—at the Forum. When the buzz about a new venue started, it was clear that we were on the edge of something big for Toronto’s live music scene, a fresh chapter for music lovers. I was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame on Budweiser Stage when the Junos were held there in 2022. Having my family with me, especially my mom, and my hometown’s skyline stretched out in the background, made me feel like our journey had come full circle.


The Beaches
Photo courtesy of Universal Music Canada
The Beaches

Eliza Enman-McDaniel: I haven’t been able to think about how we’re actually going to be headlining Bud Stage in August.

Kylie Miller: We have seen a million shows there.

Leandra Earl: When we were kids, my dad couldn’t get us tickets to Britney Spears, so we snuck into a tunnel underground and listened to her through a door.

Eliza Enman-McDaniel: Oh my god, what? Where?

Leandra Earl: He had keys to a door that took us to a tunnel.

Jordan Miller: I am genuinely shocked.

Kylie Miller: Anyhow, it’s the most fun venue.

Leandra Earl: We get wine in the boot.

Kylie Miller: No, guitar wine.

Jordan Miller: In the big glasses shaped like guitars.

Leandra Earl: It’s insane that we’re headlining—it feels like we should be opening. Our friends and family are really excited. It is an absolute dream come true. My ex-girlfriend’s dad, Don Simpson, helped open the Molson Amphitheatre. He has the original drawings in their basement.

Kylie Miller: And that key too!


This story originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.

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