The Unthanks and Sam Lee collaborate for a one-off night of sound and vision

Susie Stubbs
Sam Lee, Rachel and Becky Unthank credit Sarah Mason (1)

The two Mercury Award-nominated acts get together to remember World War One – via music old and new at the Howard Assembly Rooms.

When we think about what was lost during World War One, we tend to focus on lives – all those men and boys who never came home. Yet with those lost souls went more than just flesh and bone – with them went the sorts of collective memories, stories and music that had for hundreds of years been handed down from father to son, from one generation to the next. Now, a one-off event in Leeds looks set to bring back the ghosts of Britain’s folk music past, as musicians Becky and Rachel Unthank, Sam Lee and video designer Matt Watkins perform A Time and Place at Leeds’ atmospheric Howard Assembly Rooms.

It’s an event that hangs heavy with the weight of early 20th century art and music. Via an 11-strong line-up that includes strings and brass, The Unthanks will set WWI poetry to new music, and create new arrangements of period songs. It makes sense; The Unthanks sisters are known for their ability to reinvent traditional folk for a contemporary audience. Sam Lee, meanwhile, has spent a chunk of time researching wartime folk songs down south (including speaking to a woman who remembered a Zeppelin crashing in her village), and from these first-hand memories and research he has created a series of new songs that will be premiered here. Behind them plays out Matthew J Watkins’ video design, an artist who has worked with Gorillaz on Monkey – Journey to the West and who for this event has taken inspiration directly from the brutal, early modernist art of the period.

It’s the first time The Unthanks have collaborated with rising star Sam Lee

This is the first time that the Unthanks have collaborated with rising star Sam Lee, a musician who seemingly came out of nowhere in 2012 with a debut that in the same year saw him nominated for the Mercury Album of the Year award. They’ve come together thanks to Opera North and the Imperial War Museum’s official WWI commemoration programme – and as gigs go, this one looks set to be unusual, moving, and one of those sets that demands your entire attention.

Getting there: the Howard Assembly Rooms is an intimate, 300-seater venue tucked inside the 19th-century Leeds Grand Theatre. Restored in 2009, it’s around 15 minutes’ walk from Leeds Station; a taxi rank is outside (nearest car parks Edward Street and St John’s Shopping Centre).

What’s nearby: cocktails at Sandinista; burgers at It Bar; American eats at The Pit; film, art and café at Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen – all reasonably close by and, we are told, frequented by the good folk at Opera North.

What else is on: if you can’t make 19 September, another gig in the series looks equally intriguing. Former Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds band member Blixa Bargeld gets together with the Italian electronic composer Teho Teardo for a one-off session that, we are told, combines Bargeld’s “unmistakable voice” with Teardo’s experimental music, strings and “theatrical flair” (26 September).

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