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!

Eurovision Semifinals 2013, Semi 1 First Half

Over the next four weeks I plan to introduce and give my humble opinion on all the entries for 2013. Since we don’t know the running order, I will base it on what we DO know, which is which semi and which half of that semi each entry will compete in. Up first we have semi one, the first half. Talk about starting off the competition with a bang–four of the entries in this group are in the betting odds to be in the top six of the FINALS! It’s a strong group, and the danger here is that some of these entries might cancel each other out by performing in such close succession.

First up, precontest favorite Denmark. If Emmelie and “Only Teardrops” doesn’t send a winner vibe tingle up your spine, you do have to acknowledge that musically, visually, and stage performance-wise, this ticks off all the boxes. It is vaguely, non-specifically ethnic in a sort of Scandi-Celtic mood. The staging features an attractive young singer, barefoot and somewhat performance-artist-ish, and live drummers and a pennywhistle. The lyrics of the song are about war and world peace, but not as obvious as, say, Russia’s. If Emmelie turns in a strong performance this is a good bet to win this semi and sail to the finals, where it should land in the top three.

Next, Former Yugo republic Croatia, which hasn’t done consistently well in recent years. This year’s entry is an example of the traditional Balkan form of music known as “klapa”. To me it sounds like a bit of Italian street song with a Slavic edge to it. It’s nice, pleasant, but a bit anonymous. “Mižerja”‘s big advantage this year is the fact that it is the only number in this half performed by male vocalists. If nothing else it will stand out for that reason. Also, Yugo neighbors Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia are competing in this semi, so that should also provide a bit of a boost. Borderline, but I think it will qualify.

Ukraine is another of this year’s heavyweight entries. Zlata is a fantastic vocalist, and though “Gravity” is a bit of a strange song, without a real chorus, this is another surefire qualifier. Its most direct competition in this half of the semi are Austria, which it beats handily, and Russia, which is more of an equal draw.

One of this year’s biggest surprises is the rapid ascent of the Netherlands. When local star Anouk agreed to be the representative, the Dutch hoped to finally break out of semifinal jail where they have been stuck for a decade. When “Birds” was released for the public to listen, this entries odds rocketed up from the lower middle of the pack to a strong third place to win the whole contest. I think it might be a bit slow and downbeat to win, but should certainly match Patricia Kaas’ top ten finish from 2009 (comparing a similar, serious ballad). Moody and haunting, “Birds” stays with you. I am just not sure how it will sit with viewers who are seeing the entries for the first time.

Austria has been hit and miss since it re-entered Eurovision after a three year absence. Connecticut girl Natalia Kelly is a good singer, and “Shine” is a typical Eurovision song, but I think this might get lost in the shuffle of strong female performers of semi 1. Could advance to the finals, but I don’t have confidence in it.

Slovenia is also a hit and miss country. In theory they are part of the ex-Yugo bloc, but their culture seems more aligned to Central Europe than the Balkan peninsula, and their ex-Yugo neighbors rarely reward them with high points. Hannah Mancini is also an American expat, with a strong dance club stomper. “Straight Into Love” is a good song and fine singer, though I think it will need a good stage presentation to assure its path to the finals.

Poor Estonia has a simple song, nicely performed by Birgit Oigemeel. There is nothing wrong with it at all, yet I am afraid it will lack the impact it needs to make an impression among all these other female vocalist ballads.

Russia is another very strong entry. Dina sings beautifully, and the song is certainly immediate. If you have to listen to the well-meaning lyrics about putting down our guns and helping those who need us the most too often, it gets a little cloying. But Eurovision voters, especially in the semi, should respond to this and give Russia their usual oodles of points.

From this half, I think Denmark, Ukraine, the Netherlands and Russia have a lock on qualifying, with Croatia, Austria, Slovenia, and Estonia all on shakier ground. Eurovision week when we get to see the onstage rehearsals this should come into clearer focus!

Is ESC2013 Turning Into ‘Ladies Nights’?

All the most recent countries to select their entries for ESC 2013 have made the same choice, a female singer.  Especially if you look at the top of the betting boards right now, where the top three are female singers from Norway, Denmark and Germany.  Germany chose their entry Thursday, and it is nominally a band, Cascada, though no one much sees anyone but Natalie onstage.

Cascada’s “Glorious” featured here on the blog a few weeks ago when I remarked on its similarity to last year’s triumphant “Euphoria”.  That being said, the song is a powerhouse that will be at the top of the charts across Europe by the time that Eurovision rolls around in May.

Slovenia announced another dancefloor stomper as the song for its previously chosen artist, American-born Hannah Mancini.  “Straight Into Love” is catchy and powerfullyy voiced by Mancini, and should get Slovenia back into the finals this year.

Meanwhile, a third Central European nation chose its entry Friday, when Austria decided its strongest choice is Natalia Kelly (yet another American-born singer).  Earlier I had dismissed “Shine” as a bit too Idol-winner’s coronation song to go far in Eurovision, but Kelly’s contest performance far outpaced her competition.

And little Cyprus also unveiled its entry, as Despina Olympiou’s song for ESC was revealed to be anthemic mid-tempo ballad “An Me Thimase”.  Well-sung and powerful, it remains to be seen if a ballad in Greek still has the appeal to voters Cyprus needs to reach the finals.

Latvia will be choosing its entry tonight, and has some strong entries from bands and solo singers male and female.  I think their national final is the strongest they have offered in years, so I am hopeful for their final choice.

And finally, Italy revealed which of the contestants at San Remo would be the choice for Eurovision, and the winner is a talented and very photogenic 24-year old MALE singer, Marco Mengoni.  His Eurovision song has not yet been decided, but here is his San Remo prize-winning competition song “L’Essenziale”.

First rehearsals for semifinalists wrap up

Fourth day of rehearsal, and the rest of the entries from semi 2 took the stage. Ten entries, including some of the contests strongest, stepped up onto the big stage in Baku to get their first taste of performing for the ESC press and delegations.

Up first, the contest’s youngest participant, Eva Boto of SLOVENIA, performed a strong and heartfelt rendition of “Verjamem”. Her backing chorus were without their gauze headdresses so far, but Eva looked a bit like a wedding cake herself for this rehearsal at least.

Ex-Yugo neighbor CROATIA next took the stage in the form of singer Nina Badrić and her song “Nebo”. She sang well, but not distinctively, and the juxtaposition of two ex-Yugo countries together in the running order is not a good situation for both of them to proceed. This probably works against Croatia.

Next up, the most hotly anticipated number, SWEDEN‘s Loreen and her potential winner candidate “Euphoria”. Loreen was not singing full out during this rehearsal, but sounded fine, and her staging is not far from the interpretive martial arts-inflected dance that endeared her to the audience in Sweden’s Melodifestivalen. She was one of the most closely watched of all the rehearsals so far, and cleared this hurdle with grace…

GEORGIA‘s Anri Jokhadze had a hard act to follow, especially with his joke entry “I’m A Joker” that had been tipped as a possible nul point candidate. His wildly over-the-top staging and strong singing voice probably saved him from that fate, and may have earned him dark horse status to proceed through to the finals.

TURKEY brings Can Bonomo and his ethnic sea chantey “Love Me Back” to the Baku stage. Can sings strongly and brought a choreographed production to his number, which is a certain qualifier this year.

Next, ESTONIA is represented by Ott Lepland and his emotional ballad in Estonian, “Kuula”. Ott presents a stark simple production, alone on stage with a single female backing singer, and brought a powerful emotional connection to viewers. He should be a strong candidate for the finals.

SLOVAKIA‘s Max Jason Mai has this year’s only true hard rock entry, “Don’t Close Your Eyes”. Many bloggers and reporters on location in Baku feel disappointed with his performance and the silly “poser” appearance of Max and his band in sunglasses and hoodies onstage. Unless he ups his game, possibility gets downgraded to an “unlikely qualifier”…

The final group this afternoon to end the first round of rehearsals was led by NORWAY‘s Tooji, whose dance pop “Stay” is compared to Eric Saade’s third place performance last year. Tooji and his crew held back a bit vocally but put on an excellent dance-based stage show that should see them straight through to the finals.

The fourth ex-Yugo in the second semi, BOSNIA & HERZEGOVINA, is represented by Maya Sar and her gentle ballad “Korake Ti Znam”. She had been seen as a top contender partly based on her strong position in the running order, but her somewhat pallid presentation may not make her entry memorable when voting time comes along.

The final number of the two semis comes from young Donny Montell and LITHUANIA with his jazzy ballad that turns disco after the first minute. Though undeniably cheesy, his strong voice, excellent position in the running order and youthful good looks may propel “Love is Blind” into the ranks of possible qualifiers.

From today’s group, Slovenia, Sweden, Turkey, Estonia, and Norway seem to be the likely qualifiers! Add in Serbia, Macedonia, Ukraine and probably Belarus, and we are already up to nine of the ten qualifiers of the second semifinal. The race for the last position or two in this semi promises to be a fierce battle.

The “Balkan Ballads” of 2012

One regional music preference that lingers through the years is the great love that the former republics of Yugoslavia maintain for strongly emotional, beautifully sung ballads with an extra helping of local ethnic instrumentation. The “Balkan Ballads” fall in and out of fashion with the Eurovision voting public at large, but their built-in voting public of Serbia, Montenegro, FYRO Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia, plus their former Soviet-era comrades in the Eastern bloc who appreciate an almost overblown three minute drama, guarantee them a high placing in the final scoreboards.

This year’s crop of BBs come to Baku from the usual suspects, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and (former Yugoslav republic of) Macedonia, plus one nearby nation that is not so well known for sending big ballads. The other countries around the Balkan peninsula, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Moldova, usually send more upbeat ethnostompers to Eurovision, and tiny Albania has sent a truly DIFFERENT ballad this year, Rona Nishliu’s primal-scream tearjerker “Suus”. Her entry is classy and brilliantly sung, but maybe too intense for what voters still think of as a pop song contest…

Serbia’s Zeljko Joksimovic is back performing in Eurovision after a dazzling near-victory in 2004 with the beautiful “Lane Moje”. His current entry is melodic and spectacular, but has the Eurovision voting public changed in the last half-decade? Voters don’t seem nearly so inclined to support entries in any language besides English these days, and once Zeljko announced that it would be the Serbian language version he would perform in competition, his betting odds slid a bit toward fifth or sixth place.

The third major traditional Balkan ballad for 2012 comes from Slovenia, which always has a tougher time than the other ex-Yugos. The Slovenes identify themselves as much with their Italian and Austrian neighbors as the other ex-Yugoslavian republics, and even speak a language that is a bit different from the Serbo-Croatian of their neighbors. But 16 year old Eva Boto’s “Verjamem” has a familiar sound and effect, due to its impeccable pedigree. The song is written by Vladimir Graić, who won the whole Eurovision shebang in 2007 for Serbia with his similar-sounding “Molitva”. Listeners have inevitably compared this year’s entry with the former winner, not always to the advantage of “Verjamem”.

The entries from FYRO Macedonia (“Crno i Belo”, a rock/ballad hybrid) and Croatia (the traditional “Nebo”), while pleasant enough, are probably not memorable enough to trouble the final boards. Meanwhile Bosnia and Herzegovina is quite strong with a lovely little ballad, but a little soft and not forceful enough to carry it much above the middle of the scoreboard.

It should prove interesting to see the final fates of these local favorites, performed in their nation’s own languages. Will 2012 still offer enough support outside the Balkan region to carry any of these to the ranks of top contender?