Black Budget brings the desert to the Great Lakes at NXNE

Desert punk might just be Toronto’s hottest new sound.

Black Budget was one of the bands on the bill for the second day of NXNE. I dipped out of another show at the Garrison, which wasn’t part of the festival, just in time to catch the 501 to Bathurst. I got to Bovine Sex Club with a few minutes to grab a drink and secure a spot by the stage before they’d even started soundcheck.

The Toronto-based desert-punk trio did not fail to deliver the explosive performance they’d promised. Debuting their first single in May of 2020, handicapped by quarantine and unable to tour, the band came out of the pandemic stronger than most artists could hope for. What gives Black Budget a leg up on the highly saturated GTA punk rock stage is the desert part of their sound, which feels only a little strange from a city on a Great Lake (not a desert). For those unfamiliar with the desert vibe, you can hear elements of it on Arctic Monkeys‘ 2009 album Humbug, or basically anything else Josh Homme has produced over his entire career. The Toronto punk scene typically aligns more with midwestern emo and skate punk than the stoner rock and sludge metal commonly associated with the descriptor of desert, yet Black Budget makes it work. The group blends classic desert elements like heavy riffs, heady basslines and droning melodies with the high-energy, shouty vocal style representative of the Toronto area, combined with clashing, pounding drum fills. They play loud, fast and fun, and drawing desert influence does not negate from an overall punk rock sound. They’re just as punk as anyone else, but they’re not the same kind of punk as everyone else.

Each night of NXNE, Bovine Sex Club hosted a minimum of four acts. Due to the crammed lineups, there wasn’t time for big light shows, backdrops, or other additions to performances outside of a group’s energy and sound. Black Budget came prepared with their own strobe lights, one at each in the corner of the stage flashing at irregular rhythms. While it was just a white flashing light, the visual effect made the performance more immersive. It made the group feel bigger than the stage itself. I hadn’t seen any other groups bring lights or any similar gear, and one might be surprised at just how much something so small can impact a set.

For a group so young, both in terms of career and age (lead singer Pedro is only 25), these guys play like pros. Their set list consisted mostly of originals, but they covered the StoogesI Wanna Be Your Dog in their own style without completely rewriting the arrangement or changing the tempo. The cover was a hit with the audience. I overheard one eager fan yell as he leaned over the sticker-plastered pipe in front of the stage, “Hey man, you guys put the Stooges to shame!”

Their on-stage energy, while not completely incomparable, was electric and contagious. Both the frontman singer-guitarist and the bassist hopped onto the wooden boxes in front of the stage, climbing over the thin-but-present barricade, coming face-to-face with fans, some even reaching at the frets in a motion of awe. Though the floor wasn’t as packed as the night before, Black Budget had a far easier time getting the crowd to approach the stage than other acts I’d seen with bigger turnouts. Their high-powered execution spawned a small moshpit of six or seven guys that only amped up the energy in the room to 11. The medium sized-crowd at a small venue could have been sitting and passively bopping their heads, but they had no choice other than to engage fully with the act. People were smashing into each other and falling down, photographers (myself included) crawled and climbed to get good shots, and there was a decent-sized lineup to congratulate the guys afterward with more than just the obligatory “nice set, man”.

When their time was up, I asked to grab the setlist from the stage. There wasn’t much competition, but I always feel it’s best to ask instead of just grabbing the thing. The guys seemed really excited about this and eagerly signed it with the fat Sharpie (which is definitely not for bathroom graffiti) I carry in my bag.

I contemplated leaving the venue for the night, but I returned for the midnight set after grabbing some food. Outside, I had a chat with Pedro and the group’s manager/photographer Sandra. When talking about a band member I’ve met, I’ll often tell you they’re a Really Nice Guy, which, while always true, often translates to not an asshole. But Pedro genuinely is a Really Nice Guy, and so is Sandra, who works very closely with the band. We talked about the desire for a more inclusive scene, the potential benefits and challenges related to creating all ages events, and how much the scene has changed, from the 70s when punks walked down Queen Street snorting blow without a care in the world, and from the 90s when venues doubled as community centres, hosting cookouts and serving the people who kept it in business. Eventually, we realized we’d talked through the entire 11 o’clock set. It’s clear that Black Budget cares deeply about fostering an exciting, inclusive, and safe community in the Toronto punk and alt-rock sphere.

Black Budget doesn’t just make solid tunes with elements that set them apart from the typical Toronto group. They don’t just put on a good show, and they aren’t just Really Nice Guys. They stand out from the majority of smaller GTA acts in their sound, dedication to showmanship, and, most importantly, their commitment to creating community and an overall good time, which is the ultimate goal.

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