The first thing you should know about these guys is they are complete pros. On this record they are in full command - of their instruments, their repertoire, their stage patter. It’s all clicking like a well oiled machine. This is one of the folk groups where every member both had a really well defined role AND was well suited to that role. Lou Gottlieb was the bloviating professor, whose presong diatribes made a mockery of the self-serious folk academics. He played the stand-up base admirably too. Glenn Yarbrough was the song bird, a sensitive soul whose tenor vibrato could draw in the audience on more serious fare. And Alec Hassilev was the linguist with just the right amount of earnestness and snark. Sometimes when you get a group of performers like this you can feel the tension between two guys who think they really ought to be the front man (Dave Guard and Bob Shane of the Kingston Trio for instance), but every performer here seems content to let the other guy have his moment.
This album comes at a really strange time in the history of the group. Technically they would have already (amicably) split up so Yarbrough could pursue a solo career. The record was a historical artifact of a defunct act before it was even released.
The setting is a London Club. England had been in the midst of its own folk revival at the time of recording, though much different than the American one. The skiffle craze of the mid 50s led to a certain fascination with American blues (which arguable helped launch the Rolling Stones and the Beatles). By now the Brit popular folk scene had shifted to quieter singer songwriter material. Paul Simon was beginning to make a name for himself on the scene about the time of this concert, for example.
Most of the album is fairly standard folk programming for this era, but there are a couple of standouts. For me, the Limeliters work best when they’re having fun. So, high paced renditions of Wabash Cannonball, Hard ain’t it Hard, and Lonesome Traveler are all real toe tappers. They also have a similarly fast paced John Henry, but something about it is lacking. It feels rushed and thin. Maybe the dynamics and power behind Belafonte’s rendition has ruined me for all others.
The closing song just about brings down the house. It’s really worth trying to find the album just to hear the chaotic crowd participation rendition of Hey Li Lee Li Lee. The Limeliters typically ended their sets with this song, which was built around a set of rhyming couples and a refrain of “Hey Li Lee Li Lee.” It was an incredibly simple formulae, so simple in fact they trusted their audience to not only learn the song, but begin to improvise their own verses live in concert. The result is a beautiful mess. Gottlieb demonstrated his own improvisation chops in response to the verses created by the audience, and the audience is more than willing to play along, taking their turn in the spotlight. I can’t imagine a modern performer doing this today. It’s a terrible risk that the whole thing could fall on its face. But – the risk, the chaos, the give and take with the audience, the process of taking a simple framework and making something spontaneous, these are all reasons to love the folk revival. Especially as played by the Limeliters.