Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Eurovision 2017 Semi-Final 1, Tuesday 9th June 2017: Rewatch and Review

My Eurovision experience was a bit different this year.  As usual, I had intensively watched all the rehearsal clips and also the first semi-final, however as I was going on holiday very early on the day before the ESC final, this meant that I wouldn't see the second semi-final or final until I returned home.

As so much time has passed since then I have decided to rewatch all three shows and review them here.  Although it's almost 12 weeks since the contest took place, my opinion on the songs or the whole event itself hasn't changed, so my views now were the same as they were back in May.

I am reviewing the shows from the commentary-free DVD rather than the BBC's coverage.  I particularly find the BBC's semi-final commentary very tiresome - Scott Mills is ok but the less said about Mel Giedroyc the better - and I hate the way they miss out chunks of the televised shows to broadcast stupid VTs and sketches instead.  At least with the DVD you get the full show to enjoy uninterrupted.  Who needs commentary anyway?

On with the show...

Although there hadn't been much blogging action from me over national finals season, I had followed all the rehearsals.  I was also off work on 9th June so had lots of time to prepare myself for the first of three big nights.

The show began with a display of Ukrainian national costume and in a contrast from ancient to modern, straight into a performance of "Spinning" by Monatik (above).

In a year where 'Celebrate Diversity' was the catchphrase it would be fair to say that the host broadcaster didn't get the memo and sent three young men to host the competition!

Oleksandr Skichko (Alex), Volodymyr Ostapchuk (Vova) were the main hosts and Timur Miroshnychenko was the green room host.  We were clearly spoiled by Petra and Måns last year, and my first impressions were that we were back to the days of the stilted and wooden presenters. Although at least Vova was trying to inject some humour into the proceedings.

The Postcards

I rather liked these.  They began with a freeze frame shot of the artist and their entourage, followed by a video clip of the artists at work and/or play in their home countries or elsewhere, and then they ended with the artist getting ready to go on stage.

The evening has only just begun, but Vova declared "I can't go on!"  Anyway, let the Eurovision Song Contest 2017 begin! 

SWEDEN: "I Can't Go On" - Robin Bengtsson.

I recognised one of Robin's backing dancers as Alvaro Estrella who had competed back in Melfest a few years ago (remember that saucy "Bedroom" song?)  There were no other changes to the staging of the song which won Melodifestivalen.

One thing which really annoys me about Eurovision these days is that with very few exceptions, the backing singers are hidden away, if they're not singing and dancing around the main arist.  Backing singers do a very important job at Eurovision and they should have their moment in the spotlight too. This year Sweden was hiding away no less than Erik Segerstedt, formerly of E.M.D.!

GEORGIA: "Keep The Faith" - Tamara Gachechiladze. 

Georgia is a country which I have quite a soft spot for at ESC, because they submit something genuinely different every year.  This is not always a good thing though: for every "Visionary Dream", "Shine" and "Midnight Gold" there is a "Three Minutes to Earth" and "I'm A Joker".

"Keep The Faith" is this year's attempt at the great lost Bond theme.  Tamara's red dress is gorgeous and she definitely delivers a weapons-grade diva performance to match. A couple of interesting facts: Tamara was a member of Stefane and 3G of "We Don't Wanna Put In" fame (a song I still love, love, love!) and this song was co-written with Anri Jokhadze, not just a joker but proving that he can write 'serious' songs too. I never rated this song in the lead-up but Tamara certainly gave it all she had.  

AUSTRALIA: "Don't Come Easy"- Isaiah Firebrace. 

In the spirit of "Celebrate Diversity", Isaiah is the first Aboriginal performer to represent his country. This was another DNA composition (they wrote "Sound of Silence") but for me this was the weakest of the country's three entries so far and a bit too much of a Sam Smith soundalike.  Isaiah is only 17 years old but his voice has an incredible maturity.   But what the hell happened with that vocal wobble towards the end?  Looking back he was very fortunate to make it out of the semi-final, as other songs have been punished for less. 

ALBANIA: "World" - Lindita. 

When Lindita announced that she was competing again in Festivali i Kenges, I had hoped that she would come back with another banger like her debut FiK song "S'të fal".  However, it was this song which won FiK back in December.  It disappointed me then and it still does.  She is a very strong performer but nothing about this song or its staging really connected here or did her any favours - what have clocks and flying ships have to do with the song's theme?

BELGIUM: "City Lights" - Blanche. 

One of the things which makes the lead-up to Eurovision so special is the coverage of the rehearsals, which are supposed to give some insight into how the artists will do when the semi-finals and finals come around.  However, I was rather annoyed this year as many of the critics had already written off Blanche following some nervous performances in the rehearsals.  She is still a very young and relatively inexperienced performer and this has to be taken into account.  By the time we reached the semi-final, it was still a little tense, nervous and edgy, but I thought this worked perfectly with the theme of the song.  After all, you wouldn't be singing lyrics like "all alone in the danger zone" with a big grin on your face, would you?

MONTENEGRO: "Space" - Slavko Kalezic.

In its studio version, "Space" had been one of my most-played songs in the lead-up to the contest.  A deliciously trashy piece of disco with hilarious single-entendre lyrics.  And when you add that wondrous Montenegrin specimen to the mix then it was inevitable that he was going to be one of my favourites. However we have been here before.  I quickly drew parallels between this and Zoli Adok's "Dance With Me" which the song shared a lot of similarities with.

This was probably the most "visual" of the evening's entries which inevitably meant that the musical side would suffer.  So let's just talk about the visuals, shall we... Slavko began in his see-through vest top and a long blue skirt, before throwing off the skirt to reveal glittery leggings. And then of course there was the plait.  The sight of Slavko swinging his plait around will live in the memory for years to come.  Rocket to the stars :)))))

Alex and Vova were then back to plug the Eurovision app before our first trip to the green room which, Timur pointed out, was not green.  Oh, and thanks Timur for reminding us that the UK didn't award Abba a single point in 1974...!

FINLAND: "Blackbird" - Norma John. 

Neither of them is called Norma, or John, but they are in fact two very talented individuals named Leena and Lasse and I hope there is much more to come from them.  This song blew me away when it won the UMK final and became one of my favourites of 2017 searon.

Leena was dressed in a black gothic gown to match the theme and the staging, which hadn't changed too much since the UMK final.  The staging started off as dark blue and turned to red by the end of the song.  Leena delivered another terrific vocal performance and Lasse's piano solo was exquisite and beautiful. It wasn't quite a burning fake piano but there was dry ice coming out of it!

AZERBAIJAN: "Skeletons" - Dihaj.  

This was another song which passed me by in the lead-up but is proof yet again that memorable staging, combined with an unique and quirky personality, can go a long way.

I am never all that excited about Azerbaijan at Eurovision, with their bland, bought-in songs and performers with no personality.  This year, Azerbaijan finally brought something worthwhile thanks to Dihaj, a genuine artist, and a thrilling staging concept.  It goes without saying that every song can be improved with the addition of a man wearing a horse's head, standing on top of a ladder.

PORTUGAL: "Amar Pelos Dois" - Salvador Sobral. 

When this won its national final, I was blown away.  The song sounded as if it had come from another era, and the unique and expressive delivery by Salvador Sobral, dressed in loose clothing as he recovered from hernia surgery, gave birth to a new adjective: "Salvadorable".  The song, written by his sister Luisa, quickly found a lot of appreciation within the fan community (although was not universally popular it must be said) purely because it was different. Just how would a  jazz-flavoured ballad in a native language do at a modern Eurovision where English language mid-tempo ballads and top 40 dance-pop songs are the norm?

There was also the question around Salvador's health, with some out-of-control rumours flying around.  Salvador sent Luisa to rehearse and he would then arrive for the dress rehearsals and contest. Happily he made it.

Standing all alone on the satellite stage, with a simple forest backdrop, Salvador delivered yet another unforgettable performance.  Many watching for the first time will have felt that same feeling that we had seeing him win the national final; and there would be even more people, those who only watch the final on Saturday night, who would experience that feeling for the first time.  He just needed to get to the final.

Alex and Vova are back with some tweets.

GREECE: "This Is Love" - Demy

She is a vivacious and attractive performer and visually reminds me of Nolwenn Leroy - now there's someone I'd love to see represent France in ESC some day...but back to Greece.  This song is written by the Kontopoulos/Ballard team who wrote Russia's song last year and ridiculously over-the-top staging from Fokas Evangelinos with everything but the kitchen sink - well there's water anyway and topless male dancers.

Unfortunately there seems to be a problem with the backing singers on the chorus.  After the beauty and simplicity of the Portuguese entry the contrast is more evident and this just seems tacky and trashy.

POLAND: "Flashlight" - Kasia Mos

Fire, like a burning desire, taking me higher, walking a wire....oh FFS. Remember Norway and their "bad crimes", well this should be done for "bad rhymes".  Poland has a very powerful televoting diaspora which was particularly evident in 2016.  The difference then was that it was a melodic if old-fashioned song.  This is just drama for the sake of drama, and one of their worst entries for some time.

MOLDOVA: "Hey Mamma!" - Sunstroke Project. 

The trio first came to our attention in ESC 2010 - who could forget Epic Sax Guy - and came back this year bigger and better than ever.  Slick stagecraft and choreography to go along with a fun song.   which brought some much-needed charm and fun to the proceedings. But after this semi-final performance there was only one thing on my mind.  How did Sergei Yalovitsky get so hot?

ICELAND: "Paper" - Svala.

It seemed to escape my attention until recently that Svala is the daughter of Bo Halldorsson who represented Iceland in 1995.  That's an amazing statistic - have we ever had a parent and child separately represent their country at ESC before?  (Bo would deliver the Icelandic votes at Saturday's final).  The other question here is: what does Iceland have to do to qualify for a Eurovision final?
Svala, dressed in a white catsuit and cape, gave it her all with a dramatic and professional performance.  I had called this as a non-qualifier though as I thought it may have just come over as being a little too cold and clinical.

Back to the green room with self-confessed ESC geek Timur, who met the Sunstroke Project.  Not that he ever needed much persuading, but the legendary Epic Sax Guy gave us a blast of his greatest riff from "Run Away".

CZECH REPUBLIC: "My Turn" - Martina Barta.

Martina is obviously a very good singer who deserves a much better song than this.  And don't get me started on the costume, the Barbara Dex-worthy metallic gold jumpsuit-thing with a bra top underneath.  Even her hair and make-up is awful.  The LED screen features images from the 'under-dressed' video for the song.  This is probably one of the worst entries this year, which is a shame because as I said she is a good singer.

CYPRUS: "Gravity" - Hovig.

Another year and another Cyprus entry written by G:son.  This year it's not a 'schlager-rock' song but rather a modern pop song. In the lead-up this has been another one of those songs which has just screamed "meh" to me and even with all the visuals it still doesn't impress.  He's quite pleasant to look at, but that's it.  Before the semi-final I didn't have this qualifying and it was probably one of the evening's most surprising qualifiers.

ARMENIA: "Fly With Me" - Artsvik.

I still see Armenia as one of those countries who are "winners in waiting" over the next few years. Iveta was always going to be a hard act to follow, but Artsvik did a decent job.  They seem to get the importance of the visual impact of a song.  For that reason alone it was inevitable that this would be a qualifier.

SLOVENIA: "On My Way" - Omar Naber.

The last time Omar Naber represented Slovenia in ESC, it was in Kiev.  He didn't qualify for the final then either.

When this won EMA, his rock star styling didn't match the song, which originally was a rather nice and moving, if old-fashioned, ballad.  Since that time, the song had undergone a horrible makeover into a bombastic mess.  But at least his styling now matched the song.  A cabaret singer in a glittery suit, to match his cabaret song.

LATVIA: "Line" - Triana Park.

Postcard: the band hanging out in Riga and eating doughnuts.

A very popular winner of its national final and another credible ESC entry for Latvia to be proud of. Visually, the staging was a hallucinogenic assault on the senses, whilst Agnese was as unique and compelling as ever.  What I particularly liked about this is that they don't seem to have compromised themselves for the competition and stayed true to themselves.  I never thought this was anything other than a qualifier, so its last placing in this semi-final came as a great shock to me.


After the recap we had a performance of the song which brought ESC to Kyiv, last year's winner "1944" by Jamala in a slightly different version with an orchestral track.

Second recap and then EUROPE! STOP VOTING NOW!

It was then time for one of Ukraine's greatest: Verka Serduchka.  We are taken on a colourful journey through Kyiv, starting with a baby Verka in 1974 to singing "Hallelujah" in 1979, to the present day, styled by Dolce and Gabbana.

Then Jamala returned to sing "Zamanyly", an ethnic folk number.

One more trip to the green room with Timur, whose robotic delivery didn't improve over the course of the evening.

In the first semi-final we were introduced to 3 of the "Big 5" automatic qualifiers.  Firstly Manel Navarro, whose "Do It For Your Lover" has, to say the least, been one of the most reviled entries I can remember for a long time.

Manel had been quite prominent on the pre-party circuit and it was then time to meet one of his best mates - the UK's Lucie Jones, who for once actually gave us hope that the UK might get off the bottom of the scoreboard thanks to an experienced singer who actually wanted to be there; also, the BBC had actually put some effort into impressive staging for a change.  By the way if Timur was such a Eurovision nerd I thought he might have mentioned that to his right was the 2013 ESC winner, Emmelie de Forest who has co-written the UK's entry this year.

FInally we have the hottest favourite to win Eurovision in years - Francesco Gabbani - "the gorilla is not just for fun...." before mentioning Desmond Morris' book "The Naked Ape".   The clip of "Occidentali's Karma" was shown.

Jon Ola gave the go-ahead to announce the qualifiers.  Which 10 countries were going to Saturday night's grand final?  In random order:

Moldova - before the semi-final I was calling this as a very tight 10th place with Moldova edging out Greece. However it was one of the most impressive and assured performances of the night and absolutely deserved its qualification.
Azerbaijan - this country's always a guaranteed qualifier, but it was a deserved one for a change thanks to a wonderfully wonky and obscure effort.  It's the horse wot won it. 

Greece - my initial predictions had either Moldova or Greece qualifying, not both of them.  Someone was going to be disappointed...
Sweden - No freakin' surprise that smarmy Robin and his smarmy dancing sidekicks would qualify.
Poland - I can only attribute this yet again to the power-voting diaspora as this song really did not deserve a final place.
Armenia - this was again an obvious qualifier thanks to the visual impact.
Australia - credit to them again, qualifying in spite of that vocal wobble.  I guess there are more Sam Smith fans out there than I first though.
Cyprus - What?  When this was called out, I quickly had the realisation that one of my favourites was not qualifying.
And finally....
Belgium - relief mixed with great disappointment as neither Finland or Latvia would be in the final on Saturday night.

I didn't take Finland and Latvia's non-qualification very well, it had to be said.  Semi-final 1 was probably the toughest of the two, but I still can't understand the result, even all these months later.  At least Portugal had made it.....

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