I don’t remember where I saw it now, but a few years ago I read a list that inventoried the greatest rock ‘n’ roll singers of all time. Bono was number 3 on that list, behind Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant, and while I don’t necessarily agree that Bono ranks behind those other luminaries, at least they had him ranked in the top 3 – that’s pretty high praise, and it’s nothing that U2 fans the world over didn’t already know. For my money, nowhere is that rock ‘n’ roll voice better showcased than in “When Love Comes to Town”, U2’s collaboration with blues legend B.B. King.
My wife asked me today, as I was sitting down to write this piece, why U2 chose to duet with B.B.King. To answer that, we have to remember that the album the song is from, Rattle and Hum, is all about U2 discovering American roots music, including the blues. That process began, I imagine, when U2 began to spend a lot of time in the US due to their tours. I can totally picture in my head the band exploring American radio and coming across some recording by B.B. King, maybe even “The Thrill is Gone”, one of the late singer’s greatest hits. Maybe someone lent Bono their collection of blues tapes, but however the band discovered B.B. King, I imagine that it was a very short list of names when they began looking for a guide on the road to the blues. At the time, it seems that critics felt U2 weren’t worthy to be working with greats like Mr. King, but I believe that the band were genuinely fans who leveraged their position as the number rock band in the world to score this choice duet, and I say good for them.
“When Love Comes to Town” first appeared near the end of the Joshua Tree Tour, in 1987, when King joined the band in Fort Worth Texas. Portions of the soundcheck and the actual concert performance were used in the film Rattle and Hum. Following this performance, the song was next played on the Lovetown Tour in 1989, on which it was played at all shows but one. “When Love Comes to Town” was also played at a large number of ZooTV shows in 1992 and ’93, but following the end of that tour, the song was not played again at a U2 concert until the second show of the Innocence + Experience Tour when it was played in honor of the recently passed B.B. King. Altogether, the song made four appearances during that first month of the tour before it was dropped from it’s rotation in the middle of the set-list. More recently, the song appeared earlier this month at a charity concert for World AIDS Day and then again when Bono hit the streets of Dublin for his annual busking outing, although neither of those count as full-fledged U2 concerts.
“When Love Comes to Town” was a solid hit for U2 when it was released as the third single from Rattle and Hum in 1989 and the song did a lot to revive King’s career with younger rock ‘n’ roll fans. Although King continued to perform the song regularly until his death, I find it surprising that U2 don’t give the song more stage-time. I believe that, like Pop and No Line on the Horizon, Rattle and Hum is one of those albums that the band like to pretend never happened, which is probably the reason for the lack of live performances for this great song. I doubt that the song will ever be performed on a regular basis again, but whenever it does make an appearance, it’s another opportunity for Bono to show off his amazing rock ‘n’ roll voice.