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Israel Darling and the Catawba diaspora

by Jordan Green

A band called the Old One Two was onstage at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on the last Tuesday night of October. All but one of the bands on the bill are from Catawba and Burke counties, Israel Darling ringleader Jacob Darden is explaining. The room was pulsing with an early-twenties crowd of bohos, students and hedonists.

Huddled with a reporter, Darden of Drexel, North Carolina, elaborates on the topical content and musical themes of his band’s music as the sweet smell of cannabis coming from a couple huddled under the eaves cuts through the cold rain.

“It’s basically American life and not fitting in,” he says.

“We’re not a love-song band. I’ve never written a song about a girl. We don’t write songs about hating our parents. I love my parents. They gave me a great childhood. We kind of coined the term ‘anti-Americana’ in that we’re taking Appalachian chords and melodies, but we’re against America, at least what it is now. Several of us live together. In our house we don’t own TVs and microwaves. We don’t waste away and watch television. I haven’t watched the news in seven months. It’s not that I’m indifferent, but I won’t be able to change the powerful man.”

He comes by those musical influences honestly, having grown up the son of a guitar maker who hosted regular jams in an outbuilding on the family homestead. Darden, now 21, rebelled against those conventions, performing in a series of hardcore punk, pop-punk and dance-punk bands before letting traditional sounds seep back into the mix. Tonight, Darden will have a steel guitar player and a violinist in tow.

The lightly bearded Darden, in a red sweatshirt, skinny jeans and cowboy boots, considers the band a family. Israel Darling functions with an amorphous membership to allow for different players depending on availability and location. It can expand from a tight, organic four-person unit to an ensemble reaching towards 10 players requiring more orchestration.

Darden identifies himself as an atheist, and the tribe that is Israel Darling appears to hew to a spirit of rigorous self-examination, individualism and spiritual skepticism.

“Sometimes I question myself: ‘Shit, if I’m wrong I’m sending a lot of people to hell,’” he says. “I’ve had heavy conversations with friends: ‘Don’t be an atheist just because I’m an atheist. Figure out what you believe in. If you believe in carrots, eat a shit ton of carrots.’” He summons current bass player Jeff Bechtel, a selfdescribed spiritualist, and former bass player Tyler York, “basically a Christian,” to confirm the inclusive nature of the group.

“We love each other a lot,” Darden says. “We’ve found this group of 20 kids; it does not matter what you believe, we stick up for each other and make sure everybody is okay. That’s what we’d like to spread, if anything.”

Israel Darling takes the stage at about 11:30 p.m. The sound tech calls for a little steel guitar and Darden smiles wanly through a cloud of cigarette smoke as the piercing wail reports.

The first song, “Woman, God and Pity for a Man,” from the band’s debut album, Dinosaur Bones & Mechanical Hands, comes on strong with a surge of propulsion and heart. The rhythm, anchored by Bechtel’s trusty low end and drummer Ben Welner’s rat-a-tat precision, lurches forward with the clip-clop cadence of early Cash. Darden slashes at an acoustic guitar in a style that brings to mind Billy Bragg and sings in an exercised but soulful rasp that summons Bragg and a host of other similarly gifted but technically limited vocalists. The music of steel player Mat Masterson and violinist Anna Harris snakes in and out of the mix.

“How many people are actually from Catawba?” Darden asks a couple songs in.

A hearty shout confirms that roughly half the room is transplanted from that western county.

“How many people reside in Buncombe — we’re not in Buncombe, we’re in Guilford — how many people reside in Guilford?” One young woman is overheard laughing and remarking, “We reside here, but we’re from Catawba County.”

Israel Darling packed the Blind Tiger with fans from Catwaba and Burke counties, their home turf. (photo by Jordan Green)

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