“Angel of Harlem” has been on my mind a lot lately, because it’s one of those U2 songs with a radio version that only differs in the most subtle ways from the album version – in the case of “Angel of Harlem”, the difference seems to me to be that the horns are just a bit louder in the radio version. (The reason this has been noteworthy lately is that I’ve been trying to track down the radio version of Song For Someone.) Nonetheless, it is credited with a “remixer” on the single, it’s officially credited as a different version. Of course, that’s not the only reason that the song has been in my thoughts recently. In one of the shows in the band’s most recent stand in New York City – the last stop of the first leg of the Innocence + Experience Tour – “Angel of Harlem” was performed by U2 with some very special guests, The Roots. This performance, of course, echoed another recent performance, that from May fourth on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, when the band was joined by Fallon’s house band. One of the best things about having U2 joined by The Roots is that it allows that wonderful, bright horn part from the studio version to be included in live performances, which isn’t normally possible when it’s just the four-piece U2 performing by itself.
“Angel of Harlem” occupies a kind of strange place in U2’s collective heart and mind, I believe, especially coming, as it is, from an album that the band aren’t especially fond of. Rattle and Hum is remembered just as much for being U2’s first real critical failure (following after the universally lauded Joshua Tree) as it is for the great moments it contains. It represents, therefore, a period of their history that the members of U2 are not keen to relive. Accordingly, songs from Rattle and Hum don’t get a lot of live performances. With that in mind, the relatively modest two hundred sixty plus times that “Angel of Harlem” has been performed represents the second most airings of anything from that album, and the top song, “Desire” is only ahead by thirty or so performances. Of those performances, a vast majority have been acoustic performances, and very rarely have they approached the glory of the horns-blazing studio version. That’s what makes the recent performance of the song in New York so special – the additional personnel meant that the band was able to reproduce something that’s very rarely heard in a live setting.
In case you didn’t know, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that “Angel of Harlem” was written and recorded as an ode to renowned jazz vocalist Billie Holiday. Holiday’s life had been marked by frequent arrests (especially for drugs) and she died young, aged only forty four, due to complications from cirrhosis of the liver brought about by her heavy drinking. It was a hard life, by all accounts, but she still created a body of work that has stood and will continue to stand the test of time. The band admired her contributions to music and the hard life she lived, and wanted to pay homage to her in a song.
I’d be surprised if “Angel of Harlem” doesn’t continue to be performed on a semi-regular basis for the remainder of the I+E tour, but the lack of a brass section likely means that we won’t get another stellar performance like the one given in New York just over a month ago. However it’s performed, “Angel of Harlem” is a special song about a special singer, and it’s one that I don’t ever get tired of hearing.
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