ESC Countdown 6 Days: Rehearsal Week Shockers!

Cheat Sheet for US Viewers of Eurovision

Ok, I guess I have been watching too much social media clickbait.  Maybe this year’s first week of rehearsals in Kyiv has only produced one or two actual shockers, but there are definitely a host of surprises, good and bad. Some entries have turned out to be remarkably better than the press and fandom have previously judged, and a couple favorites have proved to be far WORSE.ukraine-stage

Let’s start out with some happy surprises. Slovenia’s Omar Naber is returning after 12 years, with a song called “On My Way” that would have sounded dated back in 2005. The bookmakers had this in absolutely last place of this year’s crop of 43, and no one considered it as any contender for the finals.  But Omar’s well-trained voice and stage professionalism, as well as a nicely understated stage production, have turned this “Meh” song into something that absolutely might qualify for Saturday’s big show.

Another entry that was supposedly dead in the water was Nathan Trent for Austria, who is a charming and attractive singer with a slight song.  Given its “death spot” of number two in the semifinal running order, its fate was sealed.  Until the first rehearsal, that is, when the press voted Austria as having the very best rehearsal and runthrough of the nine entries that day. Now t looks like he is a fairly certain qualifier. It’s cute, fun and well-performed…

Greece is a usual powerhouse when it comes down to the voting, partly due to the large number of Greeks in various countries across Europe who contribute to a powerful diaspora contingent across the continent.  This year they chose local pop superstar Demy, but unfortunately the Greek viewers also chose the worst and slightest of the five songs she was offered to use for her official entry. But the strength of her voice, stage presence and the beauty of the stage production propels this into an undeniable contender for the top ten at Finals.

Now for some of the bad news… Australia’s Isaiah Firebrace is a young man of 18 with a big deep voice, and bettors have compared his chances with hot favorite Kristian Kostov of Bulgaria who is only 17 and also competing with a modern, radio-friendly ballad.  But rehearsals this week by the Australian have failed to impress, and his chances have slipped to “borderline qualification”.

Iceland’s Svala also has a modern pop hit on tap for her entry. “Paper” was warmly welcomed into the Contest when it was chosen in March, and she was cautiously viewed as a finalist, providing that the stage production was warmer and a bit lighter than the dark weirdness she showed in the national selection show. Well, from all reports she has become less engaging and more offputting, so her fine song looks to be headed into obscurity after Tuesday’s Semifinal 1.

And the big shocker… Belgium’s Blanche is a reality show winner with a deep, mysterious voice and a surefire chart-ready song in “City Lights”. Her prospects were unlimited, not just as a certain qualifier, but as the 4th-place favorite to take home the trophy as this year’s winner. A case of nerves at London’s Eurovision party put a scare into fans, and then Blanche took it easy and bowed out of the next few public appearances. But this week’s shambolic rehearsals have confirmed her paralyzing stage fright, dropping Belgium out of the top ten in betting odds, and ESC press now see her as an almost certain casualty in the first semifinal.

Ahh, Eurovision… you never know what you are going to get till you see all the entries up on the same stage battling it out for real!

Miss Congeniality?

After seeing and hearing Greta Salome from Iceland performing her entry “Hear Them Calling” two nights in a row, last night at the Nordic party at Euroclub and tonight as a special guest in Hera Bjork’s solo show, I am very impressed with her talent, musicianship (tonight she actually played the long violin introduction to the song live) but especially her warm, down-to-earth personality.  She seems like someone I would be friends with in LA, fun and normal with a little bit of a bitchy sense of humor.

I think Greta will pass through the semis and we will see her competing in the Grand Final, but no matter.  If there was a Miss Congeniality portion of the judging, Greta would be my number one contender for the victory.

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Guess You Have to Enter to Win

Last week I noticed that ESCtoday was having an Instagram contest to win a pair of tickets to see brilliant and hilarious Icelandic diva Hera Bjork perform her show “The Queen of Effing Everything” at the Playhouse theatre here. I had nothing to lose, and gave it a shot.

Guess what? I woke up this morning to an Instagram message on my phone that I was selected as one of 6 winners, so I know what I am doing tonight. My ESC traveling friend Phideaux hasn’t arrived yet, and my Danish friend Christian is busy in the press centre all day and evening, so I think he is connecting me with a friend of his to come along.

Can’t wait to see and hear fantastic Hera, and will try to get pictures at the show tonight.

HeraQOEE

Eurovision 2016 — the BIG Songs

What would Eurovision be without big anthems, massive stage shows, and over the top performances? And 2016 promises to be no different, with some heavy hitters making their plays for the crystal microphone trophy.

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This year, some of the highly tipped winner candidates are big and supersized, starting with Iveta’s “Love Wave” from Armenia. A beautiful singer with a giant voice that wails with the best of them, Iveta could easily match or top Aram mp3’s top five placing from 2014.

Czech Republic, or now known as Czechia, has not had a single entry qualify since their debut in 2007. This year they have a fantastic singer and excellent song (aside from an unfortunate ungrammatical choice in English lyrics). Gabriela seems certain to qualify and a good bet for top five.

Iceland chose to send back Greta Salome as their artist this year, after she made the finals four years ago in a duet with Jonsi. She wrote and performs her big country folk-tinged “I Hear Them Calling” with a big shadowy stage performance.

The bettors’ choice so far (and most Eurofans aren’t too happy about it) to win this year is Russian superstar Sergey Lazarev with his big, dramatic, and somewhat outdated schlager ballad “You’re the Only One”. It ticks off a lot of boxes, and Russia really wants another victory. If ESC is off to Russia next year, count me out.

Another big, over-the-top song and singer comes from Serbia. Sanja has the pipes and the song sounds great in the studio version. Watching her over emote in the live performance takes a bit away from the entry’s winner potential. Let’s see if she tones it down a notch by May.

We could very well see a winner come from this group–we’ll know more once rehearsals start in two weeks.

(Addendum: How could I have forgotten these two, some of the biggest and most overwrought entries of all?!)

Macedonia is another country that chose to send a returning artist this year, this case Kaliopi. “Dona” is a big, excellent song, but is there enough support outside the Balkans for an original-language entry in 2016? Outside of the ex-Yugos and expats, I don’t think this will have the votes to get very high in the final scoreboard (though it will qualify).

Ukraine has had a great record when they send big overproduced pop numbers, but this year they chose instead big-voiced Jamala and her heartfelt plea to stop violence that harkens back to Russian mistreatment of Tatars in “1944”.

Quality Songs Win on Super Saturday 2!

Iceland finished their song selection today with an EXCELLENT choice for Vienna, while Italy’s San Remo concluded its week of competition with a 4-hour marathon final that saw young opera-lite guys Il Volo triumph with what might be a winner candidate this May.

In Italy, Il Volo made a convincing case for Eurovision top contender (though opera-style songs are MOSTLY overrated as a votegetter in ESC).  Their record company is blocking their YouTube performance video from US viewers, so here is the official music video of “Grande Amore”.  Do you think Rome 2016 is in the cards?

Meanwhile, Iceland continues to impress Eurofans with the VERY high quality of the songs in its national finals.  The top two contenders in the “superfinal” came down to Maria Olafsdottir and Fridrik Dor, with young telegenic vocal powerhouse Maria taking the trophy and ticket to represent Iceland in Vienna with her “Unbroken”.  Many fans now rank Iceland and Italy as the top two entries so far this season.

Meanwhile, across the Baltic, Lithuania chose home-grown entry “This Time” over two internationally-produced songs.  Next week we will find out who will sing this very good entry for Lithuania in Vienna for ESC, but Vaidas seems to have the inside track with this happy, country folk-tinged entry.

Second Semifinal, First Half

The second night of semis is harder to predict than the first this year. It isn’t really that the quality is higher (four of the top five contenders in the betting odds are in the first semi, after all). It’s more that there isn’t such a big distinction between the top contenders and the rest in this semi. With the right set of circumstances, you could make a case for almost any of these entries qualifying. Some of the borderline entries have also been helped by the running order, evening things out even more.

Kicking things off Thursday evening is PeR from Latvia, with their upbeat party anthem “Here We Go”. This is squarely at the bottom of the betting odds, but number one in the running order is the best starting position the boys from PeR could hope for. Could it qualify? I will be interested to hear the reactions from their first rehearsal onstage tomorrow.

Next up is fan favorite San Marino, also known as Valentina Monetta and Ralph Siegel 2.0. After last year’s ridiculous “Social Network Song”, it’s actually kind of heartwarming to see Ralph and Valentina come back with something so different and… GOOD! Currently at 10th to win the whole shebang in the latest odds, it’s a fairly safe bet that San Marino will finally break out of the semis this year.

On the other hand, F.Y.R. of Macedonia started out with a good song this year, but has slowly making things worse with every change. Esma even mentioned that Macedonia would have done better to pull out of the contest this year than switch to “Pred da se Razdeni”. Lozano has an honestly good voice, though his part of the song reminds me a bit too much of Donny Montell’s “Love is Blind”. But Esma’s wailing in Romany feels so inauthentic and grafted-on that I find it hard to imagine this qualifying.

Next up, the little country that could, Azerbaijan. Will Farid keep up his country’s flawless string of top ten entries? Probably so, though I think his English pronunciation really needs some work. “Hold Me” sounds a bit like a Dima Bilan cast-off, circa 2006, but it should definitely qualify.

The big fun change of pace in this half comes when we get this year’s only bit of harmless, silly 80s-style pop. Krista Siegfrieds bubbly “Marry Me” is definitely a breath of fresh, bubblegum-scented air in the second semi. Will she put in the girl-on-girl kiss and its implicit statement in favor of same sex marriage? Can’t wait to find out!

Malta’s simple singalong “Tomorrow” is sweet and harmless. Gianluca is pleasant and charming, and this year Malta’s fortunes could go either way. The right staging would do a lot to help sell a little love song like this; let’s hope they do something catchy to get viewers to remember “Tomorrow” come voting time.

Bulgaria brought back their only succesful artists, Elitsa and Stoyan, to hopefully bring back the fine placing they achieved in 2007. “Voda” was a lot better than “Samo Shampioni”, so it’s anyone’s guess whether lightning will strike twice for the percussive Balkan ethno-folk duo.

Iceland is serving up their first entry in Icelandic since Páll Oskar’s “Min Hinsti Dans” in 1997. This year it’s Eythor Ingi with the lovely unadorned ballad “Ég á Líf”. Eythor is a solid vocalist, and his native language is one of the loveliest to sing. The bettors don’t think much of Iceland’s chances this year, but I think it could surprise.

Greece chose an entry that I initially HATED, “Alcohol Is Free”. It’s the kind of manic zaniness that we expect to hear from Moldova, and makes not a lick of sense. But Koza Mostra have been one of the most popular acts every time they perform this song at any of the Eurovision concert showcases this year, and EVERYONE expects it to sail through to the finals. I am still not in love with it, but I grudgingly see its appeal.

From this group on Thursday, I expect Greece, Azerbaijan, Finland and San Marino, plus maybe Malta or Iceland to pass through to the finals. Latvia, Bulgaria, and F.Y.R.O Macedonia will have a tougher time.