It's hard to see where you're going when you're looking back.
David Bowie's "Sound + Vision" tour offers a peculiar premise for a show by a big rock star: Nothing but old songs, and on top of that it's their final spin. After the tour, Bowie will no longer get lost in space as Major Tom or celebrate the sci-fi rock star Ziggy Stardust or encourage his fans to face their ch-ch-ch-changes.
Is this a gimmick to drum up interest in the tour? A daring gesture to put his future artistry on the line? (The idea is that shelving his old favorites will force Bowie to rely on his new work.) Or is it a lazy way to stage an undemanding concert, avoiding the challenge of combining his past with his present?
Whatever the slippery star's true motivation, the result on stage at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Wednesday night was erratic at best: occasionally inspired, mostly flat.
What could be wrong with a good, uncomplicated wallow in the canon of this rock titan?
Well, the lesson is that a totally retrospective show, even one loaded with major material and built-in drama, needs the balance and forward movement that even some token new material would provide.
Bowie's performance suggested that rather than bringing a special poignancy and edge to his classics, their imminent retirement has already left them lifeless.
The knowledge that they're on their last legs deflates them instead of enhancing them, and they didn't even generate much of the valedictory sentimentality that should have been the cheapest emotion at their command. He put the most into two of his landmarks, "Life on Mars?" and "Ziggy Stardust," but he looked as ridiculous as he's said he feels in the Stonesy glitter-rock of "Rebel, Rebel." He offered selections for fans of most of his incarnations, with the emphasis on the post-"Ziggy" years.
On the other hand, Bowie's casual manner was doubly refreshing after his last tour's distancing stagecraft. He seemed even looser than he did at last year's surprise Roxy show with his stripped-down group Tin Machine.
If he can create the same kind of intimacy when he plays Dodger Stadium on Saturday, Bowie will be a real magician. But with this show, there's still no way he can avoid being a lame duck.
A full review runs in Friday's Calendar section.