The Big Apple’s first post-rawk revival NYhilism is upon us. Or something like that. When bassist Kenan Gündüz closes out a set by singing Sparks’ 1980 anthemic holdover “Rock ‘n’ Roll People in a Disco World,” you can’t help but feel a real connection, like the wild spirit of rock has been articulated. All those stretchy blues riffs, spasmodic vocals, and bratty snarls belong to the Witnesses, a Brooklyn-based cross-tread of the Rolling Stones, the Stooges, and Steppenwolf. But don’t tell them that. The Witnesses hate the term “retro,” and they want little to do with the so-called rock revival going on in New York.
“Contrary to popular belief, there were rock bands in New York City before the whole renaissance,” says primary singer Oakley Munson, ex-Rondelles drummer-keyboardist. “A lot of bands are trying to be rock, some bands are trying not to be rock—and we ain’t trying to do shit. You hear things like ‘We want people to know that we’re the next Clash.’ All I want people to know about the Witnesses is that we think all that’s a bunch of rubbish.” It’s statements like these that have some calling the Witnesses the next Clash.
On any given night, at least one, and often all five, of the members of the Witnesses can be found barside at local tavern Daddy’s in Williamsburg, mixing it up with the neighborhood patrons. You’d know them if you saw them. The 24-year-old Munson has an unmistakable mushroom cloud of brown hair like Noel Redding in a thunderstorm, wears a Sergeant Pepper coat with epaulets and a stylish ascot, and has boyish ruby red cheeks. His bandmates are not hard to spot after that; they’re the striking collection of fashion works beside him. They’ve been roommates in nearby Bushwick since 2001, and their camaraderie is obvious.
And for that the Witnesses have become a consummate New York band, from selling out their first ever show “at a dump in Manhattan called the Luna Lounge” to performing with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Donnas, and the Star Spangles, all of whom love Witness rock. Onstage, it’s Munson’s sleazy high-pitched pipes that get the most work, but keyboard cutie Bonnie Bloomgarden—when stepping away from her chin-high Vox Jaguar—displays a tremendous set of lungs for such a little thing (she’s five-foot-nothing) on the tantrum-like original “Black Eye.” She belts out the Ike and Tina classic “Fed Up” with equal tenacity. Whoever the singer is, guitarist Darian Zahedi’s backup vocals and trashy-sounding guitar licks masterfully accentuate the loud choruses.
The organic chemistry that makes the Witnesses stand out live doesn’t slacken on their eponymous three-song EP, which features an emblazoned recording of the crowd favorite “Stop Pretending.” For their homecoming show at Northsix following a mini-tour of the South, we’re likely to hear all the songs from their pending full-length album; while at Manitoba’s every Monday in April the Witnesses promise Manhattan a steady blend of covers and originals.