David Bowie’s fifth L.A. perf in three months was a bit of a puzzler. For every positive note, something else nagged — his voice was gorgeous and powerful, but too much of the material was subpar; the band played with uncompromising precision, but the pacing was erratic; and Bowie’s captivating smile added an incongruous layer of pep to some of his darkest material.
Perhaps longtime Bowie observers have become spoiled: He has been magnificent at modeling concert tours as snapshots, using conjoined material or stage sets and costumes to distinguish each outing from the last. One never expects any go-round to be like its predecessor — a pattern he’s maintained for more than 30 years. Even when the excesses become bewildering — the Glass Spider tour of the late ’80s was certainly the most overblown — there’s a safety net created by the belief that Bowie is once again ahead of his listeners.
Thursday’s show, opening night for the newly refurbished 75-year-old Greek Theater, was a 29-song hodgepodge. Half the tunes had radio airplay history — “Rebel Rebel” from the ’70s, “China Girl” from the ’80s, “I’m Afraid of Americans” from the ’90s — and four hailed from the recent ISO/Columbia release “Reality.” Highlights were his take on “All the Young Dudes” and, with the 25-member opening act Polyphonic Spree behind him, recent tune “Slip Away,” an ode to Uncle Floyd, host of the classic late-’70s New York-New Jersey kids TV show.
Rest of the material was often problematic, if for no other reason than a lack of personality or context. And he was at least partly aware of it, even sarcastically commenting on his trip through a minefield of obscurities. “You look at the scope” of the material, he wisecracked, mimicking some diehard fan in the fourth row.
Bowie’s songs of the last dozen years have almost always served a concept; forced to stand alone or bridge two unrelated works, songs such as “The Motel” and “New Killer Star” come across as either too complicated, barren or lackluster. They became needlessly mannered; certainly “NKS,” from Bowie’s 2003 rock-oriented disc “Reality,” could sit well among works from his “Diamond Dogs”/”Aladdin Sane” phase. Current show makes it too arty, whether fashioned either for the formal stage (ballad “The Loneliest Guy”) or the dance hall (“Hallo Spaceboy”).
He used his half-hour encore to take the aud through “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.” Its appeal was pure nostalgia, but it revealed how much of his material needs its companion pieces to have a visceral effect.