First, the usual disclaimer about Eurovision preview concerts. It’s a good chance to see many of the performers sing live for the first time, but it doesn’t necessarily give us any indication of how an entry will do on the very different Eurovision stage. For example, whilst Conchita may have been welcomed as a conquering hero at last year’s Amsterdam event, the Dutch entry kept completely under the radar, even on home territory, hampered by a terrible sound mix and without the inspired staging that lifted it in Copenhagen.
So bear that in mind, as I run through last night’s show. You can make your own mind up by watching the videos of last night’s performances. The few on the official Eurovision website generally cut out the crowd noise until the end, which helps isolate the vocal performance, but for a comprehensive selection with a better sense of crowd reaction, head to the essential ESCKaz YouTube channel.
We were missing Italy, Estonia and Russia among this year’s leading contenders, which meant Sweden and Australia were the most fancied entries on show. Kept till near the end, I felt they justified their elevated position in bookmakers’ lists for Vienna. Sweden are contest favourites which always means being judged to a more exacting standard as value-seekers attempt to pick holes. I’m not a natural fan of ‘Heroes’ and have some sympathy with the “style over substance” critiques, but Mans Zelmerlow did a good job of dispelling some of these doubts thanks to a highly polished performance without the animation stage show.
People have been looking for arguments to oppose the Swedish entry, but last night only reminded me of its strengths: a highly accessible and immediate pop song, very ably performed, that stands out from the competition. Mans’ vocals have come on a huge amount since the days of ‘Cara Mia’, and there’s great movement around the stage just when it’s required, which means ‘Heroes’ doesn’t fall into the trap of being too static. The animation show is a clever way to ensure there’ll be a sense of interaction too, though the song didn’t feel as lacking without it last night as I had envisaged.
I highly respect Australia as strong competition to the deserving favourite, and last night provided confirmation bias of that. Guy Sebastian’s vocals and performance were excellent, especially given that ‘Tonight Again’ is a pretty demanding number that doesn’t give him a break. Fortunately, he’s more than up to the task; the talent that has propelled his longstanding career shines through, and should impress juries in Vienna, as it did those watching yesterday.
I’m going to move onto the other crowd favourites last night. Local representative Trijntje Oosterhuis had her home audience singing an encore of her song, though I really could have done without even more of the “why?” refrain. The same man is responsible for staging this in Vienna as supervised ‘Calm After The Storm’ last year. I wish him good luck trying to disguise the overly-repetitive and bland nature of ‘Walk Along’.
Israel’s entry was a fan favourite in 2014, and that looks like being repeated this time, if the reception to 16-year-old Nadav Guedj last night is anything to go by. I have been sceptical based on his performance in a national final that felt like the singing equivalent of ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?’. But some of my cynicism melted away last night: his vocals were sound enough; his dance moves grew in confidence; and best of all, he looked like he was having the time of his life on stage, which is just what’s required for ‘Golden Boy’. Early rehearsal footage suggests there will be three male backing dancers to provide movement, and two backing singers – which feels like a sound decision.
The reaction to Serbia’s Bojana Stemanov was massive. No surprise that a big, brassy lady in a big, sequinned outfit, with a message that being different is great – in a song which goes from power ballad to disco belter halfway through – goes down very well with a Eurovision audience. I still think the mood change powered by a eurodance beat in ‘Beauty Never Lies’ is as anathema to juries as it is catnip to the gays.
Ballads have more of a problem getting across to a boozed-up gig crowd, so it is to Lisa Angell’s credit that she got a huge response from ‘N’oubliez Pas’. The French entrant displayed impeccable vocals, and the audience clearly felt that this type of francophone ballad is timeless in a Eurovision context – rather than straight out of 2001. It was one of the six big moments of last night, alongside the other entries mentioned above.
The big power ballad works better to this crowd than something much quieter. Hence a decent reception to Greek entrant, Maria Elena Kyriakou, who showed excellent vocals for ‘One Last Breath’ even if the song lacks much of a melody. It was harder for Cypriot Giannis Karagiannis to connect to the audience with ‘One Thing I Should Have Done’ though there was nothing wrong with his performance at all.
The same can be said for Poland’s Monika Kuszynska. ‘In the Name of Love’ feels competent enough in its studio version, and Monika does her best to emote, but there’s something about it on stage that makes you think of going to the bar or toilet instead. That semi-final pimp slot and diaspora allies may come in necessary for qualification.
There were plenty of strong vocals on display last night. One to single out was Latvia’s Aminata. I think the fortunes of ‘Love Injected’ are one of the most difficult to predict for Vienna. I’m not sure if viewers will take to it after one listening, even though I hope they do. Meanwhile, I may not particularly like Hungary’s ‘Wars For Nothing’ and it seemed like the audience largely agreed with me, but Boggie sold it well despite the muted reaction – she created a big vocal moment towards the end of the song, that may help her with juries in Vienna.
Albania’s Elhaida Dani has a lovely texture to her voice, though the sound mix was not being particularly helpful for her rendition of ‘I’m Alive’ last night. I felt the other one to suffer most in this respect came straight afterwards, and that was Macedonia’s Daniel Kajmoski. When his vocals could properly be heard, there was nothing wrong with them either.
Low expectations can create positive surprises in their own limited context. That was the case for Moldova’s Eduard Romanyuta last night, whose vocals sounded better here than in the Moldovan national final. He and his team have their slightly sleazy dance routine showcased back then down pat. Once I’d got past his appearance as a slightly cheesy crooner, Montenegro’s Knez also put plenty of passion into ‘Adio’. Both these entries have an uphill struggle from poor draws in their respective semis, but having not got involved yet, I felt slightly less inclined to lay qualification after yesterday.
There was something of the opposite effect for Slovenia’s Maraaya, a fancied entry that didn’t quite get the big audience reaction I anticipated. I still think wearing a lace dress and headphones looks incongruous, and the latter subconsciously limits interaction with the audience, especially when the lead singer’s eyes are closed as frequently as they were last night. But it’s a strong tune that deserves to do well. I feel the same way about Norway’s ‘A Monster Like Me’, the final minute of which offers an excellent emotional punch. But I still have the feeling the duet is not coming across quite as well as it should, and I think it’s because Debrah Scarlett doesn’t quite nail it the way Morland does.
Azerbaijan’s Elnur Huseynov got a good response for ‘Hour of the Wolf’. When he could be heard over the loud, choir-like backing track, his vocals were excellent. He interacted well with the audience, which will be required for a number that could come across as a little inaccessible. Lithuania’s ‘This Time’ is all about accessibility: Vaidas and Monika still have great chemistry and they don’t look bored of repeating the mid-song kiss. This also got a good reaction. You know what you’re getting with them, and the same can be said for Austria’s The Makemakes, which was also competently performed.
Ann Sophie gives it her all for ‘Black Smoke’. So much so that it feels a little bit try hard at times, though I think juries might appreciate her efforts more. Georgia’s Nina Sublatti also puts up a combative performance with decent vocals for ‘Warrior’, though I can’t for the life of me make out half the words she’s singing.
Selling the UK entry was always going to be difficult without any backing dancers around. There was nothing wrong with Electro Velvet’s vocals, but exposed without help on stage, the duo looked slightly stilted despite their best efforts for ‘Still in Love With You’. Basically, the song requires Pasha Parfeny and Ani Lorak levels of performance, and a dance routine to back it up.
If there was a disappointment for me last night, it came from Belarus. The inability to rhyme anything with “thunder” in the chorus might be my pet hate this year, and it makes the song even more repetitive. Uzari and Maimuna need to interact more with each other, as there was a tendency to act separately to the audience last night. I can’t understand why ‘Time’ is relatively elevated in the markets; perhaps it’s something to do with the strong team working behind the scenes for Vienna.
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