France (Semi 2) - Dj Adja

Destination Eurovision, France’s national selection for the Eurovision Song Contest held its second semi-final, where 9 acts performed on January 19th. Same concept as the first semi-final, where each act sang twice, first singing a cover song then their potential Eurovision song. Performances were judged by a national televote making up 50% of the overall score and by an international jury who comprised the other 50%.  Four singers from each semifinal would advance to the national final scheduled on January 26th.

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Gabriella - On Cherche encore (Never Get Enough) // Disqualified (6th Place)

The first contestant of Destination Eurovision's second semi final is a French Canadian national who participated in the Voice France in 2016. Her song is upbeat with a hint of Vanessa Paradis where she talks through her verses. Very colorful stage with stairs à la Melovin. Gabriella had all the ingredients to be a finalist with a pretty catchy song, but failed to take it to the next level and give it power (weak vocals). She pretends to play violin towards the end without convincing. While the "experts" placed her in the top 3, international jury members did not seem convinced and only placed her 7th, while she ranked 4th in the televotes. Definitely missed opportunity for one of my favorite songs when I listened to the studio cut versions.

The Divas - La voix d'Aretha // Qualified (3rd Place)

Aretha Franklin had a tribute twice at Destination Eurovision. The Divas first performed Aretha's Respect before La Voix d'Aretha (Aretha's voice). Great voices and an upbeat melody, The Divas deserved their place in the final, because they brought soul to Destination Eurovision. The international judges placed The Divaz 4th, while the audience placed them 3rd. While not a favorite, the international jury members and audience both agreed that The Divaz deserved to be in the Finalz.

Ugo - Ce qui me blesse // Disqualified (5th Place)

Destination Eurovision 2019 had its Max Cinnamon (remember DE 2018). a kid (born in the 2000's) singing an original song about a heartbreak written in his bedroom...deja vu. Pretty pleasant melody but very weak for any contest of that nature. Unlike last year, Ugo did not convince the audience (ranking 8th) to allow him to compete in the final show. International judges placed him 2nd.

Tracy de Sá - Por Aqui // Disqualified (8th Place)

Destination Eurovision had an urban song with a catchy melody. While the studio cut version as fun and engaging, Tracy de Sá's performance did not deliver on the promise to bring some calor to the show and "invite people to dance". Vocals were below average. Thankfully, the international judges and audience were in total agreement placing Tracy last (with 2 points) and 7th with 13 points.

Emmanuel Moire - La Promesse // Qualified (2nd Place)

Emmanuel Moire was the other famous artist (along with Chimène Badi). After having the leading role in a very successful musical in the early 2000's and having a very successful career, Emmanuel Moire attempts to represent France in Tel Aviv with "The Promise". The promise to be true to himself...being gay! The message is very touching, and I am sure many at Eurovision could identify with it, but the melody and staging were more on the weak side. Given his celebrity status, Emmanuel placed 1st with the audience and 3rd with the international judges.

Noémie - Ma petite famille // Disqualified (9th Place)

Ma petite famille is a pretty "sunny" song about family. the song was light and uneventful. Pretty ethnic and colorful melody. The vocals were not bad, but the song is not at the caliber of the Eurovision Song Contest. The song placed last overall with only 6 points from televotes and 8 points from the international jury.

Seemone - Tous les deux // Qualified (1st Place)

"Tous les deux", a song from a daughter to her father. Great voice and very emotional. European judges were raving about Seemone who received 12 points every international judge -- Mikolas Josef (Eurovision 2018 // Czech Republic), Zoë (Eurovision 2016 // Austria), Christer Björkman (Eurovision 1992 // Sweden) , and ... an Armenian backing vocalist in Eurovision 2016). The act was sponsored by Kleenex and appeared to appeal to televoters as well. I agree that the song is beautiful and moving, and odds seem to put Seemone as strong contender to win Destination Eurovision and represent France in tel Aviv. Unless Seemone is able to appeal to all Europe the same way Salvador Sobral did in 2017, I would prefer a more interesting and fun act to represent France in Tel Aviv (#Roi)

Doutson - Sois un bon fils // Qualified (4th Place)

A song about being a good son...new and interesting concept with average vocals and cheap staging. The song has nothing special going for it and I believe it will have a low score during the final. 5th palace with the international judges and 4th with televotes. Being a good son allowed Doutson to qualify to the finals (1 point more than Ugo).

PhilipElise - Madame la paix // Disqualified (7th Place)

Nice French melody, average vocals, weird dance moves. Not enough to qualify for the finals for PhililpElise who wanted to promote finding peace with yourself. PhilipElise landed a 7th place with 31 points.

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This concludes the second-semi final with 4 finalists : A love declaration from a daughter to her father, a "coming out"/acceptance story, divas paying tribute to Aretha Franklin, and a song about being a good son. Self-acceptance and Family themes dominated the show with 2 acts each. The Final show will air on January 26th with two favorites (Bilal Hasssani's "Roi" and Seemone's "Tous les deux").

Hungary (Heat 1) - Chris Dominey

Since national selection format ‘A Dal’ was launched in its present form by broadcaster Médiaszolgáltatás-támogató és Vagyonkezelő Alap (MTVA) in 2012, Hungary hasn’t failed to qualify for a Grand Final. In addition to three top 10 placings, A Dal’s record for producing well-regarded entries seems fairly unblemished. It has also, in recent years, provided some much-revered variation to the 40-something entries from which Europe has to choose its winner.  Will 2019 continue the trend or be the exception to the rule?

Last Saturday, January 19, the first of three heats, two semi-finals and one grand final kicked off in Budapest. This year’s A Dal stage consists of several LED square screens of differing sizes, projecting images relevant to each act.  Hosted by Freddie (Eurovision 2016) and Bogi Dallos (A Dal 2013/14/15), the show saw six qualifiers were chosen among 10 entries. Five of those were decided by a combined jury/public vote with one more decided by a public run-off vote alone amongst the five lowest placed songs.  

Overall, the first heat proved at the very least, disappointing. It’s early days for the Hungarian selection and the favourites to win the coveted Euroticket were not amongst tonight’s contestants. Largely however, the performances seemed very similar, the songs uninspiring and the vocals lacklustre at best.

Sadly, A Dal’s structure continues to mean that unless an act curries favour with the judges, the points of whom represent 4/5 of the initial placing, the job to qualify is much harder. Indeed, the second run-off vote between those who placed lowest in the initial voting means that only one out of five songs can qualify on public voting alone.

My opinion of course comes from a lifetime of not being exposed to Hungarian musical tastes. I also thoroughly enjoyed many of A Dal’s previous graduates. But, I honestly failed both to understand and to pre-empt the judges’ opinions and scores for any of the participants. Nevertheless, with potential for a revamp and improved staging, this format has proved successful in the past and so I can only stay positive.

My favourite (and this is a stretch) of the night did not qualify however. I had high hopes for Berkes Olivér – Viágítótorony and thought his vocals were easily some of the best, but as a result of the voting structure, he failed to inspire the judges and therefore failed to qualify.

Amongst the other non-qualifiers were the only two English language entries of the night. It’s great to see the Hungarian language reigning supreme however with one song inspired by Frida Kahlo and one about the tribulations of ‘getting wasted’, this wasn’t really a surprise.

On the other side of the scoreboard, Szekér Gergo’s vocal performance  was poor at best , yet scored a top placing overall. As for the other qualifiers, I appreciated the traditional dress and cultural sounding melody from the Antal Tímea feat. Demko Gergő– and it quite rightly achieved the only ’10’ from the judges. Again, the vocals were not on point however. The other three would certainly continue A Dal’s trend of sending something (at least vaguely) different to Eurovision but not one of the six, for me at least, was anything special.

That being said, given Hungary’s recent record, it’s early days and I wouldn’t be surprised if this year’s selection still turns out a diamond in the rough.

Coupled with a few ‘green room’ interviews, an interval act and a group song, the final results were as follows (YouTube links embedded):

1.     Szekér Gergő: Madár, repülj! – 41 points - Jury (8,9,8,8) + Public (8)

2.     Oláh Gergő: Hozzád bújnék – 41 points – Jury (8,7,9,9) + Public (8)

3.     Antal Tímea feat. Demko Gergő: Kedves Világ! – 39 points - Jury (6,10,9,6) + Public (8)

4.     Konyha: Százszor visszajátszott – 38 points – Jury (8,8,6,8) + Public (8)

5.     Nomad: A remény hídjai – 35 points – Jury (7,7,6,7) + Public (8)

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6.     Deniz: Ide várnak vissza – Qualified from public run off vote

France (Semi 1) - Evan Stewart

Destination Eurovision, France’s national selection for the Eurovision Song Contest, began January 12 with nine acts gathered for the first semifinal. Each act sang twice, first singing a cover song then their potential Eurovision song. Performances were judged by a national televote making up 50% of the overall score and by an international jury who comprised the other 50%.  Four singers from each semifinal would advance to the national final.

For brevity, I will skip each contestant’s cover and review only his or her Eurovision number.

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Naestro

The first contestant of the night is Naestro, singing “Le brasier.” Naestro has a deep, clear tone and his song is pleasant enough but it lacks a real draw. The songwriters appear to have realized this because suddenly after the chorus there’s a surge of percussion and synth beats in a desperate attempt to ‘modernize’ the song.

Florina

Next up, we have Florina, whose “In the Shadows” is a pre-contest favorite online. The song starts out with a syncopated verse, has an ethereal feel, and then comes together in a banger of a chorus. Unfortunately, Florina’s voice doesn’t soar as it was supposed to; she’s off-pitch most of the time. This is one of the first major misfires of the Eurovision season.

Chimène Badi

After nailing Édith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” as her cover (seriously – watch it!), Chimène sings her Eurovision number, “Là-haut.” It starts slow, then is joined by percussive backing, then reaches a banging chorus. Chimène’s voice carries the stage, but I must admit that a little something seems ‘off.’ Is it the dark lighting? The weird purple cube? The fact that Chimène doesn’t look at the camera at all? Was anything bound to disappoint after her Édith Piaf cover?

Battista Acquaviva

Up next, we’ve got Battista Acquaviva, whose name suggests that she’s either a Corsican singer or a Cuban drag queen. If you don’t believe that the latter is a possibility, I refer you to the pyramid of scantily-clad men surrounding Battista at the start of “Passiò.” The song begins with a beat drop, but then the Gregorian chant backing vocals start and Battista whispers a few half-baked notes. Le sigh. To be fair, some of the harmonies are entrancing but Battista’s voice is unable to fully create the otherworldly sound she was hoping for.

Silvàn Areg

Next up, we’ve got Silvàn Areg, who looks somewhat like Francesco Gabbani’s French older brother. Silvàn’s original song, “Le petit Nicolas,” is a stylistic mash-up of French accordion tunes and rap. Let’s call it “Straight Outta Montmartre.” This is the most visually distinct entry of the night, with paper cutouts creating an illusion that Silvàn is wondering through a storybook. Silvàn is a real charmer as he mugs for the camera and, though he could chill with the hand gestures, the audience seemingly enjoys it.

Bilal Hassani

Bilal comes into tonight’s semifinal as the favorite with his buzzy entry, “Roi.” With dyed blond hair and a white pantsuit that screams “Lady Gaga in Space,” Bilal begins his number in the audience. He sings a mixed French/English verse then robotically marches over to the stage to sing a chorus about being his own person. It’s a powerful social message, particularly when sung by an androgynous artist like Bilal, but his underwhelming vocals make this number seem more anemic than anthemic. Eurofans are in love with this song and I can understand why, but it seems to promise more than it delivers.

Aysat

Aysat is the seventh contender of the night with her Afrobeat-infused pop ditty, “Comme une grande.” It’s a very current hip-hop song but it’s a bit too fast for Aysat, who seems to bobble some lyrics. The catchy chorus is somewhat marred by mediocre dance moves which Aysat tries to do with a microphone in her hand. The studio cut of this is great, but live it does not deliver.

Lautner

The duo Lautner is up next. Their original song “J’ai pas le temps” starts out with a furious string intro, which one of the boys pretends to play on a violin while his partner squeaks a few high notes. The violinist then starts to bleat a few notes while skateboarders go back-and-forth on a halfpipe in the background. (I think it’s a metaphor for how repetitive this song is?) The boys seem to be having a great time, but as one might expect from a group named after an actor from Twilight, Lautner appears to have more beauty than talent.

Mazy

Our final performer of the night is Mazy who, for reasons unknown, sings “Oulala” atop a pink, glowing box. The song has a non-traditional verse that drops the end of every phrase, builds to a pre-chorus that heightens the tension, and then… the chorus is merely a refrain of ‘Oulala’s. Bummer. Mazy has a nice, smoky voice and shakes things up with a percussive break towards the end, but this one feels like a missed opportunity.

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The results are in and Bilal Hassani is revealed to have crushed the first semifinal, winning both the televote and jury vote and scoring 115 out of 120 possible points. Chimène Badi finishes a distant second with 66 points on the strength of her second-place finish with the televote. Silvàn Areg is third with 59 points after finishing second with the jury. With 40 points, rounding out the list of those advancing is Aysat, who finished last(!) with the televote but third with the jury. The second semifinal will occur on January 19 and the national final on January 26.

Lithuania (Heat 2) - Asta Zelenkauskaite

The second round (Heat 2) has started with a few returning artists and a few new rising stars of the Lithuanian Eurovision. There were 13 participants who competed in this round. Only 6 of them moved to the next round; including the following artists:

  1. Edgaras Lubys - „To the sky“

  2. Emilija Gogolyte -  „Riddle“

  3. Juna - „Strength of a woman“

  4. Lukas Bartaska - „River of hope“

  5. “Original copy” -  „Power of sounds“

  6. Paola Hart - „I’ll be alright“

After summarizing votes of the jury and the audience, the winner of the Heat 2 with the maximum of 12 points came out Edgaras Lubys with his song “To the Sky.” It is not his first time to compete in the Eurovision—his debut was in 2004, and in addition he participated in 2010, 2015, 2017, and currently in 2019.  He has released so far 5 studio albums so far. The song has a familiar sound of the 80-ties and the musician himself nostalgically has pointed out that 80-ies were the times when many great songs were created. And this song brings him to his musical roots. Here is the link to the song.

Emilija Gogolyte was a clear favorite of the audience (ranking number two), while the jury ranked her as number 5. While the summative points made Edgaras Lubys a clear leader, there were quite stark differences in the order in which other contestants were lined up. For example, Juna came out as number 1 in the jury votes, and she earned the highest appraisals for her performance, in the audience listing she came out only number 8 for the audiences. Juna has participated in the previous Eurovision as a back singer for Donny Montell who has represented Lithuania in 2012 and 2016. He is the author of Juna’s song for 2019.

While this show has featured many talented singers, yet there was no clear leader so far in this second Heat selection.

Lithuania (Heat 1) - Michelle & Steve Stigwood

Michelle

Lithuania's broadcaster LRT are organising this year's competition to select Lithuania's entry for Eurovision 2019. A total of 81 artist submissions have been reduced to 49 acts that will take part in the televised National selection show called "Eurovizijos Atranka 2019". 

This comprehensive competition will commence with the first of four weekly Elimination Heats on 5 January. Each week, half of the contestants will be eliminated by a combination of jury and public votes, then that will be followed by 2 Semi- Finals with more culling, and eventually a Grand Final on 23 February, where the last act standing gets to represent Lithuania in Tel Aviv later this year. 

The official judging panel consists of 3 men ( LRT music expert, a DJ and a composer) and their votes have equal weight along with the public vote. The composer, Vytautas Bikus, has credentials as he composed Lithuania's 2018 ESC finalist entry "When We're Old". So, what can they uncover this year? 

Steve


Heat 1 

The twelve contestants included some from the weird and the wonderful and showcased Lithuania's depth of talent and broad range of musical genres. 

In the end something from both the weird, the wonderful, and the popular progressed, so everyone should be happy. Although the jury vote and the public vote were at complete odds in this Heat. 

1. "Blind Bird" performed by MaNNazz - funky duo showcasing how electronic music can win the hearts of fans despite lacking in tempo variation. It has a beatbox interlude and a couple of big notes at the end that gives the female performer an opportunity to really shine. Loved it. 

2. "Rozes" performed by Migloko- polished voice with good range, sung entirely in Lithuanian. It was the Jury favourite, and described as an "off the wall" swing/punk/rnb/jazz/bossanova song with Migloko wearing a large set of headphones for her entire performance. Easy listening for her and for me. 

3. " I want your love" performed by Aldegunda - sensual performer, Latin rhythm, dance number but took her a long time to seduce us before she got up off her chair to boogie. It's popular, it's catchy...you got the drift. 

4. "1000" performed by Twosome - Lithuanian serial competitors, think Il Volo with an extra brother, 2 sisters and a big twist. This is packaged to entertain and covers more genres than Migloko! 

5. "Anyone" performed by Glossarium - hard rock band, classic feel, high energy but starting to age a bit. 

6. Traukinys performed by Sarunas Maciulis - a seasoned performer, a Lithuanian Roy Orbison singing about trains. The audience loved him. 

Honourable mention goes to "Paradox" performed by Ruta - a slow sexy song that is about Terrorism! Say no more. 

You can watch the Heat 1 winner here.

Albania - Mike Whalley

From 2003, Festivali I Këngës has been used to select the Albanian entry for the ESC. In this 57th edition of the annual Christmas-time show, a change this year meant that each ‘semi-finalist’ performed their song twice – on night one they sang with the RTSH Symphonic Orchestra; on the second night the final version of their song. I quite like this approach, which harks back to the days when Eurovision was performed with a live orchestra. 14 songs made it through from the 22 semi-finalists to sing on the third and final night, from which the winning song was chosen.

After a superb performance in ESC18 by Eugent Bushpepa with ‘Mall’ finishing 11th in the grand final in Lisbon, Albania must be hoping for big things from their 2019 entry. As per last year, the winning song is chosen by a professional jury only.

There was an eclectic mix of songs in the final on 22nd December, including ‘Leyla’ - a typically Baltic sounding male duo ballad performed with heart and soul; ‘Më e fortë’ which featured a fierce female performance by Soni Malaj; ‘Hije’ a much more contemporary if slightly schizophrenic Albanian-English hybrid; ‘100 pyetje’ which came in 3rd place, which sounded more like a Belgian or French entry than something from Albania; and ‘Rrëfehem’ a fabulous ‘bang-it-out’ female performance with big notes and great sax overtones, which came in second place overall.

The winning song is performed by Jonida Maliqi, a well credentialed performer in Albania – she has taken part in Festivali I Këngës multiple times, has been on big Brother, on the Albanian Dancing with the Stars, and been a judge on The Voice of Albania. She certainly has stage presence, which will be helpful through the long wailing sections of the song.

Ktheju Tokës, which translates as ‘Return to the Land,’ is a fairly familiar Eastern-European-handwringing-pain-death-and-hostage track. Nothing particularly unique or refreshingly new, but I’m sure it will play well with a subset of Eurovision viewers. Apparently it was written "for Albanians, for immigrants, for all the people around the world" dealing with the topic of Albanian emigration, especially in relation to the Kosovo War, which definitely comes through in the feeling of the song. Whether it will be performed in Albanian or English is as yet to be decided – and I’m not sure understanding the lyrics really adds to the song.

I expect big wind machines, big hair and make-up, and big visuals on the LEDs, if the final performance is anything to go by. Whichever language it is performed in, it feels like a middle-of-the-table track unless they liven it up in the few months we have until the ESC.

You can watch Ktheju Tokës here.