Reprinted without permission from the Toronto Sun, June 16, 1996


VANCOUVER -- It's only 10 p.m. and the floor in front of the stage is already soaked with beer. A grey pall of smoke hangs in mid-air over the sweating bodies in the pit.

Soundgarden's Chris Cornell can't suppress an amused smile at the disbelieving horde before him -- perhaps the smallest crowd he's played to in five years.

"Imagine what we thought when we got a call asking us to play some scummy little bar in Vancouver," he says, bumming a cigarette from an adoring fan.

So began the first in a series of musical "blind dates," the latest stunt in Molson's apparently limitless campaign to fuse its beer labels with the top musical acts of the day.

On Saturday night, Cornell and company knocked the pants off about 500 rock mavens from across Canada at the Town Pump, an acoustically challenged jumble of exposed brick and dour black walls, located in the waterfront pub district of Gastown.

The drill is simple: be the first, or ninth, or hundredth caller on your local FM station, win a draw, and Molson will fly you to a major city to watch a famous band in a cozy location. Group and site to be disclosed on arrival. But the beer folks promise "one of the biggest bands in the world."

"I couldn't believe it. I thought it was some kind of sick joke," said Erin Tkachuk, 19, of Sudbury, Ont., "But here I am. I was caller No.5, then I got my name drawn one night at Tailgate Charlie's (a Sudbury bar) to win the trip."

Tkachuk's boyfriend Steve Patay was dumbfounded to learn he'd be seeing Soundgarden, the Seattle-based grunge legend. "There's no way we'd ever get this close to this kind of band without paying about $200," he said.

Twelve more such gigs will go ahead across Canada this summer, culminating in a grand prize week in September, in which winners will watch three headline acts in bars in Toronto, St. John's, Nfld. and Vancouver within seven days.

Splashy, for sure. But Molson has done stranger things to advertise beer.

Remember, this is the company that sent hundreds of fans to the arctic hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk last September to hear Hole, Metallica, Moist and Veruca Salt rattle the tundra. Two years ago, it was Lynyrd Skynyrd in Whistler, B.C., and Def Leppard at Panorama resort in the Rocky Mountains.

"Because Molson Canadian has done these kinds of events before, I think we've established a kind of equity in them," said Sean Lanigan, the brewing giant's West Coast brand manager. "People hear about the contests and think, hey, you know these guys are going to deliver. So they sign up." Saturday's concert would be Exhibit A.

The fans revelling in Soundgarden's bass-laden blend of power chords and lyrical dystopia had flown in free from as far away as Nova Scotia. Their bus trips were free. Best of all, the gallons of beer that fuelled their two hours of mania were also free.

Cornell, drummer Matt Cameron, bass man Ben Shepherd and guitarist Kim Thayll kept the crowd rapt with mostly new stuff from their recently released disc, Down on the Upside. Mixed in were past hits like Spoonman and encore material from their Grammy-winning album, Superunknown.

"The bands think these events are cool because it's going back to their roots," Lanigan explained. "They're used to playing stadiums and festivals, now here they are in a 400-seat bar."

Nor do the fans harbor illusions about their role -- a target market of twenty-somethings, cooped in bar plastered with beer logos.

"Of course it's a marketing gimmick," said Sara Card, a 23-year-old from Victoria with a sweating can of Canadian clutched in her hand. "But that doesn't mean I'm going to drink Molson beer. I don't even like beer."

"I'm just drinking it now because it's free."