Ayumi Hamasaki – Countdown Live 14/15 Review

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Now that Kouhaku has disappeared from my yearly watchlist, seems like I’ll have more time to spend with Ayumi Hamasaki’s annual New Years’ Eve concert.

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Countdown Live 2014-2015, subtitled Cirque de Minuit, is already the 14th such concert, almost all of which have been released on DVD/Blu-Ray and shown on TV. And it may just be the best yet!

Let’s get some things out of the way first: Ayumi is a very capable performer in the sense that she has fantastic stage presence and can command emotion and attention like few others in the business, but there’s some things holding her back: her reluctance to try new things on stage and her lacking vocal skills. And guess what: she has some surprises in store in this concert regarding both complaints!

Officially nominated for fiercest bitch in town
Officially nominated for fiercest bitch in town

Ayumi quickly appears on stage after a short acrobatic performance, ascending on a platform accompanied by the ominous strings of a newly arranged version of Duty. It’s all rather gloomy and sensual, the screen behind her showing a dark circus tent, most of the movement on stage contained to her many dancers as she belts out some rather unexpectedly clear high notes before returning to the delicate verses of the song, wearing a ringleader outfit accentuated by red seductive lipstick. The following performance of the similarily dynamic Microphone sees Ayumi return to more standard practices, singing towards the audience, interacting and just letting all her energy and confidence flow out. An explosive song and the perfect choice for the sophomore song of the evening, yet keeping with the dark circus theme that seems so popular lately.

She so fly
She so fly

A short song by her band leads into GAME, a long forgotten rock track performed in a sparkly tight dress, sporting a practical ponytail. Why practical? Because Ayumi uses this song to show off her newfound interest for performing aerial acrobatics! As she is swirling around in the sky at high speeds, it’s really surprising how controlled her vocals remain – granted, the choreography was designed to only be strenuous during the instrumental sections of the song, but you’d still expect her to be out of breath upon returning to the ground, wouldn’t you? Another rarely performed but always fun gem, my name’s WOMEN sees the return of whips to Ayu’s reportoire. To my knowledge, this is not just her first time performing this song without the use of a playback, but also by far the most complete version of the song’s somewhat iconic choreography performed by her. Bravo!

It was between this and her shooting a heart out of her cooch
It was between this and her shooting a heart out of her cooch

Much the same can be said about 1LOVE, the final song in this segment of the show and a new benchmark in raunchy – as far as Ayumi’s material goes. A screen gets lowered onto stage, in front of which Ayumi performs a choreography that is timed with a screen video and projections from the front. Think Beyonce’s recent performances. It all feels rather fresh in the context of the Japanese music business and is certainly executed very, very well. Did I mention it’s raunchy as hell, too?

It wouldn't be an Ayumi concert without a pretty gown
Obligatory pretty gown and tacky prop

The essential ballad section of the concert starts with a performance of TO BE by one of her background singers before revealing a hanging moon prop for Ayumi to sit on. She’s looking beautiful in a gown, barefoot as she sings her new single Zutto…, unfortunately struggling to reach the high notes, but delivering gorgeous lines whenever she switches to her vibrato rather than trying to hit clean notes. One questionable vocal performance is quickly forgiven though, given that her rendition of Last Minute right after may just be one of her strongest vocal moments. When it comes to rock ballads, Ayumi has always been a natural, but this song in particular seems to suit her more than anything else. She effortlessly jumps between the gentle, serenading verses and the aggressive chorus, belting this song out like there’s no tomorrow all while retaining intense amounts of emotion in both the quiet and more dynamic parts of the track. A benchmark future performances will most certainly be measured by!

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Hey there, budget constraints!

The last of the songs included on her latest single, Walk, is performed in a sparkly white dress with a long, fluffy trail – an outfit essentially lifted from her 2011 Power of Music concert. It’s a simplistic performance on the center stage, without dancers or screens, just featuring a rising merry-go-round prop recycled from an older concert. A very effective rendition of the song, rendered rather heartbreaking by Ayumi bursting into tears towards the end. The extended instrumental beginning of forgiveness gives Ayumi enough time to sneakily travel back to the main stage, only to instantly rise against amidst dancers carrying illuminated heart props as the stage is transformed into a bright church. Heavily reminiscent of the same song’s performance in her 2011 tour, I felt the props made this rendition just a tad too tacky and the inclusion of the new years’ countdown at the end of the song felt out of place to me. The Power of Music performance of this song, for now, remains my favorite Ayumi performance. Keeping with the 2011 theme, progress is the first song of the new year. The song is performed without any special elements to it, but nevertheless acts as an energetic, optimistic welcome to the new year – a very good choice.

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It wouldn’t be an Ayumi concert without dancers in ridiculous outfits

It’s staples time – with a twist! The SURREAL-evolution-SURREAL medley that many fans have grown sick of lately is spiced up with an entirely new arrangement, including a violin section, a new guitar solo and a short sample of Ode to Joy, the third major change this classic medley has gone through in the 10 years or so since it was first performed. It all works rather well, certainly flowing more seamlessly than before. But while the medley may feel like the finale, there’s one more song to be enjoyed in the main concert: NOW & 4EVA. Looking past that disgusting misuse of the English language in the title, my first impression upon hearing the song this summer was: “this is the most quintessential “Ayu” thing I’ve ever heard”. And she seems intent on turning this into a modern classic! This performance is certainly a lot more skilled vocally than the last one this song has seen, but that’s where the notable aspects end. It’s a comfortable finale, but without any grandeur or particularly conclusive feeling about it. It’s clear to me that Ayumi is having a lot of fun singing this song in her concerts – it really makes a difference in my appreciation of it.

Well...this is unexpected
Well…this is unexpected

The encore has another surprise in store – rather than featuring fan favorites and audio interaction songs, we are treated to an EDM medley of Movin’ on without you, XOXO and Lelio(and elements of You & Me and Terminal), complete with a DJ on stage and rave-like screen effects – if it wasn’t for the tour merchandise Ayumi is wearing, you wouldn’t know it’s not part of the main concert anymore – followed by only one encore staple, Boys & Girls, that, for once, isn’t just screamed into the microphone.

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The last two songs were designed to make you cry: how beautiful you are and Born To Be…. Two stunning, emotional performances, filled with tears from an Ayumi that is even more prone to crying in her concerts than usual. You won’t see me complain about these two songs anytime soon, particularly when Born To Be… is performed in its modern arrangement.

This concert was very interesting, to say the least. We saw Ayumi in a state of vocal control she was never in before, we saw her embrace her sexuality to a surprising level and own the stage in a variety of new ways, but we also witnessed a balancing act between a new style of performance – a further step in a complete reinvention Ayumi has been going through in the last year or two – and an attempt to hold on to valued elements of the past, obvious in the many throwbacks to older concerts, particularly Power of Music 2011, and the inclusion of NOW & 4EVA and Born to Be… in key spots of the setlist.

There was not one moment of this concert I actually disliked – off the top of my head I cannot think of another Ayumi concert this applies to. With her upcoming 2015 tour sharing this concert’s concept and titles, I’m rather excited for what the future will bring.

I am currently in the process of migrating over to a new hosting platform, where I have started a new blog. For now, I will release my posts both here and on the new domain, but soon I will only post over there. So make sure to add the new blog to your bookmarks. 😉 Thank you!

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