Ayumi Hamasaki – Countdown Live 2013-2014 Concert Review

There’s a shocking lack of Concert DVD/Bluray reviews in the realms of J-Pop. I can’t be the only one generally more interested in a good concert than a good album, can I?

Hamasaki_Ayumi_-_CDL_2013-2014_DVD

I felt the need to watch this concert again after my disappointment with Ayumi’s new digital single – and hey, it’s not her best concert, but actually pretty decent!

Setlist and Music

Like most of Ayumi’s concerts, Countdown Live 2013-2014 can be roughly organized into short, self-contained sections, usually separated by costume changes and musical interludes.

The concert opens on an Electropop section including Feel the love, with an extended intro taken from the Blasterjaxx Remix of the song, and her 2002 song WE WISH, performed with a heavier emphasis on guitars than the original recording had. Both arrangements benefit the songs, with Feel the love turning into an explosive opening that covers up the tremble-heavy, “light” feeling of the original mix and turns it into a more danceable song.

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She whips her hair back and forth.

After a short DJ Break, courtesy of DJ Hello Kitty, Ayumi returns for a dark, hopeless segment of Free & Easy and Because of You. Free & Easy has been shortened, effectively reducing it to a much less interesting piece as the tense build-up and frantic release were the song’s defining factors. Because of You, also shortened by a verse and chorus, doesn’t suffer from the missing sections as much, remaining a powerful, emotionally charged rock track.

An extended outro to Because of You and a stunning original song performed by Ayumi’s background vocalists give Ayumi the necessary time to get into her enormous dress for the ballad section – CAROLS and Momentum. A bland christmas ballad and an attempt to recapture the magic of her hit M, respectively, it’s the weakest segment of the tracklist. Neither of the songs is notably rearranged.

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One does not simply do rock without whipping around some fake hurr.

A band showcase of sorts leads into is this LOVE?, one of Ayumi’s heaviest, most aggressive rock tracks. Also close to the original arrangement, a live band does add plenty of energy and dynamics. Love Song has been more heavily restructured, sporting an acapella opening that slowly evolves into the traditional version of the song, with small extended bits and pieces thrown in here and there. It’s a beautiful, tangible arrangement that has been performed in her 2012 tour before. It lacks some of the folksy feeling, instead developing into more of an adult contemporary sound.

After conveniently using the countdown to the new year as an excuse to change outfits once again, the final section of the main concert already awaits. Merry-go-round is performed in a slightly extended version including a simple dance break and stopping entirely for a moment when m-flo join the stage to collaborate with Ayumi. I would have preferred to see the song continue as one, but do enjoy the new elements greatly. It’s a song that was made to be performed in front of an audience. The jump into You & Me is almost instantaneous, discarding the scaled back opening that she rarely performs live. The performance is much the same as all her other You & Me performance, the song has quickly become a staple – understandably considering the sing-along and jump-along potential. Closing the main concert is, predictably, SURREAL-evolution-SURREAL. While I honestly do enjoy the medley, especially since the new opening to SURREAL is stunning, I can see why fans would be annoyed by it or sick of it. I’d prefer to occasionally see another finale for a concert as well.

The encore begins with a small acoustic segment. Ayumi performs a rather laid-back version of part of Me followed by a version of curtain call backed by a gospel choir. The former performance, while pretty, never quite seems to develop into more than a novelty, curtain call, however, received its first good performance in this concert, employing the same, simplistic arrangement, but containing more of a dynamic spirit.

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taaaaaDAAAAAAAAAA!!!

Ayumi performs her usual assortment of upbeat classics in the form of Boys & Girls and Humming 7/4. While I don’t detest either song, I find them rather boring, being essentially the exact same thing I’ve seen from her at least 20 times.

Celebrating the end of the concert on a high note, a new, somewhat swing-y version of Bold & Delicious lifts the spirits, being deliciously close to the original expression of the song while not sounding much like it. I really enjoyed this rearrangement, even if I’m not a fan of introducing band and dancers in the middle of a song.

Countdown Live 2013-2014 features a short, but impressive setlist. It’s diverse, yet everything flows perfectly – using musical interludes to connect the styles. Even the songs I do not enjoy have clear purpose in the setlist, as CAROLS and Momentum provide a moment to calm down between more dramatic and upbeat tracks. Musically, this concert would work as a good studio album while being absolutely aware of its purpose and staying on a consistent level of quality and mood. The choice of opening and closing tracks specifically shows an excellent understanding of developing tension and filling expectation in a concert setting.

The band and back-up singer are also in top form, adding some punch to the songs that the studio versions occasionally lack.

Visual & Performance Design

Let’s get the biggest thing out of the way first: that stage is incredible! While for the biggest part rather familiar – a set-up with the stage at one side of the arena, a big screen at the back,  an even bigger screen above the stage and a walkway connecting to an elevating circle stage within the audience, the new additions are absolutely spectacular. There’s a hydraulic gate/crane in the middle of the stage that opens on an angle and can support multiple performers on top of it while its 3 sections are moving individually. I honestly can’t think of a similar device in any other concert I have seen. I’ve seen ramps that opened in the middle of the stage – always a successful opening – but never ones that move with such freedom and can have dancers on top of it while moving. Connected to that “moving ramp” is a stair of steps that can unfold itself from the floor, think of it like one of those “3-D” picture books. It’s all rather exciting.

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Ayumi’s guide to a powerful entrance: fog, back lighting, hydraulics and dancers in Robocop outfits.

Ayumi uses the new additions well, emerging amidst lights from below the ramp for Feel the Love and singing on it as it moves for WE WISH and You & Me. She does seem to realize the dangers of turning it into a gimmick, only using it when it adds to the performance and even then being rather subtle about it in songs like Because of You, where it just serves as an extension to the higher layer of the stage. The danger of overusing an element in a short period of time can’t be overstated, but is often ignored by Pop singers. The lighting and screens are, for the biggest part, also used effectively, though the screen video for is this LOVE? looks a tad cheap. The choreography and performance design is also well-thought out and planned, though some of the choreographies can seem goofy.

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As long as I have this performance, I don’t need anything else.

The strongest moments of the concert had some of the most intriguing design ideas. For Merry-go-round, when Ayumi was joined on stage by m-flo, some cloth that was hung over the circular stage and seemed to be purely decorative for the remainder of the concert fell down beautifully as Ayumi and VERBAL were performing on the elevated stage, swirling around them for a moment before ultimately falling to the ground. But the strongest, most memorable moment has got to be Love Song. In it, Ayumi watches images from the past year pass on the screen behind her as the stairs rise with her standing at the top. It’s a wonderful, reflective moment that underlines the excellence of the performance design – of which the entire Love Song performance is the pinnacle. Unfortunately, not all that sparkles is gold. There were some off elements in the concert, the worst offender being the entirety of the CAROLS performance.

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Where’s Fashion Police when you need it?

In CAROLS, Ayumi wears an oversized dress, including a horrible hairpiece that make her look like a 7 year old dressing up as a Disney princess. It’s tacky, it looks like it was picked up at a flea market, not even seeming to fit her body well. After a while, fake snow (or maybe petals, I can’t tell) starts falling around her and dancers join. The result is a melodramatic, tacky and lifeless performance that could have been a lot more. I do think the concept had a lot of potential – but why use the main stage for your gigantic, circular dress when you could have used it much, much more effectively on the center stage? Imagine a simpler, less stuffy version of the outfit – covering the entire of the circular stage as it slowly rises and the snow starts falling around her. Now that could have been fantastic. Some of the other outfits looked a bit thrown together as well, but CAROLS (and Momentum to a lesser extent) and the over the top melodrama coming with it was the performance I would be embarrassed to watch with people around.

Performance and Vocals

Throughout the concert, Ayumi presented herself as a forceful, diverse performer that can adjust to a variety of genres, moods and types of pop performance. She was engaging and had a tight grasp of the audience for the entire 2 hour performance. She has come a long way from the little girl that went on her first nationwide tour in 2000 and spent her time standing around timidly on stage and waving her hands, taking full control of the situation – absorbing the audience’s attention now.

Ayumi’s vocals, while never very strong on a technical level, are appealing. Always supported with the necessary power or grace and projecting emotion that most Pop singers can only dream. There is one very, very ugly mark on the vocal performance during this concert though: some of it seems very, very fake.

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Is this the happy expression of anticipating a big paycheck?

Now, I haven’t attended this concert, I have no way of making any statements about what was going on during that night. But I do know that what we hear on the DVD sound in some songs is not what came out of Ayumi’s mouth during the actual concert. Of course, every professional concert release will have some form of vocal editing employed – it makes sense to even out some off notes and compress some shouty lines – but Countdown Live 2013-2014 goes above and beyond. And while some of the songs just appear to be heavily edited, others most certainly were either performed playback or had their vocals replaced entirely for the DVD. A variety of elements can add to this impression, from bad editing and lip matching, over heavy processing, strong backing tracks and vocal replacement to outright playback – but something shady is going on in parts of this concert/DVD, specifically in the first half, where Feel the Love, Free & Easy, Because of You(correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems to be the vocal track from her 2010 tour), CAROLS and Momentum appear to be entirely playback.

Ayumi makes up for it by showing even more charisma in the songs that were definitely performed live and being entertaining enough to watch for me to, mostly, not care about the possibility of playback – but I felt a fair review needed to point it out. Ayumi has a long history of using playback in her concerts, but this one seemed like the worst offender in a long time.

Conclusion

Countdown Live 2013-2014 is a good concert both for Ayumi’s fans and as a first exposure to her music, marrying a great setlist, smart, expressive design and one hell of a performer for 2 hours of high energy Pop music, but there are some things that could be serious problems for some fans. The concert is one of the shortest in her career, at under 2 hours, some of the performances are over-dramatic and tacky and the whole playback issue could harm somebody’s enjoyment of the experience.

For me personally, the absolutely amazing performances included, specifically Feel the love, Love Song and Merry-go-round, more than make up for it. But Countdown Live 2013-2014 remains in a rather indifferent position. I adore some sections and believe it’s a fun experience overall, but there’s also some flaws that simply cannot be overlooked. Unlike some of Ayumi’s other concerts that are great from start to finish, Countdown Live 2013-2014 needs to be enjoyed for the ride, nothing more, nothing less.

As a closing note, I will just leave you guys with my favourite performance from the concert(that youtube has unfortunately thrown a tiny bit out of sync).

Have any of you watched the concert? If not, has this review sparked your interest? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

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6 thoughts on “Ayumi Hamasaki – Countdown Live 2013-2014 Concert Review”

  1. Hey! Glad to see you back. This is one of my favourite ayumi hamasaki countdown lives along 04-05, 05-06 & 11-12. I really enjoyed the energetic WE WISH (in my opinion better than the original) and even Free & Easy was quite spectacular even if it was soo short 😦 . But the highlight from the whole concert was definitely Love songs! From the ballads, I was impressed by CAROLS and Curtain call. I’m kinda tired of Boys & Girls, Humming 7/4 and You & Me and also I could have lived without Merry go round (even if it was really fun as a premiere performance). Overall, I enjoyed the stage, ayu and the stuff were really energetic and the setlist was a nice surprise. I’m a bit disappointed about the playback subject but excluding this, ayu’s voice was enjoyable.
    Nice review! I was about to ask you about reviewing this cdl :)))

    1. Hey 🙂 Glad to see you enjoy the review, congrats on leaving the first comment after the relaunch. 😉 I’m going to be reviewing more (recent) concerts from now on.

  2. Very interesting review! Though I personally adore Carols and Momentum.
    Kudos for figuring out almost all the playback performances.
    I have only 2 corrections. 1) Is this love? is also a playback.
    2) Oddly enough but the last part of Because of you was live each of 3 nights (the rest of the song is a playback indeed).

    1. Hey 🙂 Thanks a lot for the comment! I always get annoyed at Ayumi fans pretending she is some angel that would never lipsynch, so I felt it was necessary to point it out. 🙂 I wasn’t sure about is this LOVE?, but I can see how it would be playback.

  3. I really enjoyed this concert even though it was soooo short. I was hoping for something along the lines of PCDL. Despite the short length and super edited vocals, I think this was a really fun concert. Love song was the performance of the night.

    By the way, which Ayu concerts are your favorites? Mine would be Power of Music, RnRC Tour Final ~7 Day Special~, and PCDL.

    1. We have pretty similar taste! PoM, RnRC and AT12 are my favorites. 🙂 PCDL was the first Ayumi concert shown on TV after I became a fan but I never liked it – too much playback, not enough energy.

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