I was lucky enough to actually experience the very first Eurovision PreParty Riga back in 2014. Starting up then as the new kid on the block behind the established shows in London and Amsterdam, things didn’t start off with plain sailing. The lead singer of Aarezemnieki couldn’t turn up, Lithuania withdrew last minute, and I was in another bubble as the only person further west than the Baltics who turned up.
Thankfully the two acts who performed that day were Cleo and Conchita, the headline makers of the Song Contest that year. Getting the time to speak to both of them without the baying mobs other preview events create in the press huddle is still a fond memory.
Since then, Eurovision PreParty Riga has kept on going, attracting a record nine entrants for the 2016 edition. This is despite numerous challenges and challengers, like the far richer offerings from Moscow and Tel Aviv, and more traditionally attractive destinations in the west picking up this game (Madrid is planning an April preview event this year for the first time). One can not underestimate the draw of such high status cities for many of these acts, often fresh faced artists who have dreamt for years about gigging in London or Amsterdam but only through Eurovision do they get that opportunity to play the capital cities of Europe. Riga is a lovely city, but never on the same list.
This year, five acts from the 2017 Contest set foot in Latvia’s capital. Ruslana appeared as well for a special Ukrainian flavoured interval act and Justs, last year’s Latvian entry, got the party started. The atmosphere was certainly livelier than the side street pub we took over three years earlier. Crystal Club was a swanky place just stroll out from Riga Old Town and the new venue gave the touch of elegance needed.
Furthermore the media interest was far more intense than before, with the usual Wiwibloggs, ESCKAZ, and ESC Bubble teams doing their reporting and interviews alongside regular journalists from Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and Sweden. As the preview events multiply, so too it seems do the people wanting to follow the exhausting journeys to Kyiv.
Five Acts And Their Story
Each of the five acts had the joys of attending an afternoon press conference, followed by a meet-and-greet and then of course the show in the evening.
Up first on Saturday night was Martina Barta from the Czech Republic. She spoke to me after the press conference about the bizarre system Czech TV operates to find their Eurovision artists. Martina explained that she first heard ‘My Time’ at the end of January, when the broadcaster sent her this and another song. She had to record versions of both tracks, while other artists in the selection were sent other songs to record. The broadcaster then has to internally select one of the returned compositions as their entrant.
In terms of her performance, it was solid and secure throughout, but sadly the track didn’t offer enough dynamics or growth of character to make it shine competitively. What did work was Martina’s opening number, the Lana Del Ray track ‘Young and Beautiful’ where the clarity of Martina’s voice coupled with the edgier track really stood out. The Meghan Trainor cover though of ‘All About That Bass’ was ill advised. While harmless enough it didn’t showcase her voice and wasn’t hammed up enough to make for the comic performance it needed to be.
We’re not expecting any big stage from the Czech Republic this year, with Martina hoping viewers will focus on her words on stage.
“My wish is that the people believe in what I am singing to them, and that I will be true and honest to them.”
Next up were NaviBand from Belarus. There’s no doubting that like previous Belarussian entrants the pair have had intense media training before the start of their assault on Europe’s hearts. The couple though still appear as charming as you could ever wish with their rehearsed routine of awarding Belarussian emblazoned wristbands exactly the cute symbolism they were trying to achieve.
Much of this was aided by Ksienija, the female of the act, who had to hide a tiny tear about this adventure being her ‘dream come true’. PR machine or not it was hard not to think it was genuine. She’s a Eurovision fan at heart and performed snippets of left-field tracks like ‘Love Injected’ and ‘Rhythm Inside’ to warm the hearts of interviewers.
Language was of course the top agenda point for NaviBand, with Belarussian getting its first appearance in the Eurovision Song Contest. Both artists referred to the perception of Belarussian as a ‘death language’ and that it’s ‘so important to say where you are in this day and age.’ As young people, they feel it’s important they ‘bring life’ to the language.
As I spoke to the duo we touched even on the current political crisis impacting on Eurovision. Belarus is uniquely placed between Russia and Ukraine in this propaganda war. Relations between Russia and Belarus have become frostier in recent months due in part to Belarus’ new visa free travel agreement, de facto ending the open borders with Russia. Furthermore freedom-seeking youth in Minsk have been protesting against the government’s new tax against unemployment, and the showcase of young Belarussians empowering the use of their native language seems at odds with the political climate of 2017.
“We don’t want to talk about politics or stuff like this, it’s not interesting, it’s upsetting. Because for us it’s so important to be positive. Our song is positive. We want to say to everyone, please stop, it’s time to be happy.”
There’s no denying on stage that NaviBand have an ease about them in this intimate venue. Their three performances, all of course in Belarussian, were well executed and showed some of the softer side on the duo rather than the slightly frantic nature of their Eurovision entry. Speaking of that, they do it brilliantly. The key to success here is going to be if the jury members sense that they are cute and adorable, or are just a little bit crazed. The hand movements from Kseniya for example verge on the boundaries of this, but if they both get chance to gaze longingly into the camera this has an infectious charm. The new ending, without the long repeating “hey hey hay-ay-ay-ayo” adds a needed dimension, but there’s little indication of that change making a strong performance, which was a little bit lost for those twenty seconds on Saturday night.
Poland’s Kasia Jos was third out, only managing to get to Riga for the concert with fog delaying departure from Krakow. This was my second time witnessing ‘Flashlight’ live, after previously hearing it at Ukraine’s National Final in February. There’s zero doubting both the vocal strength and delivery on stage here, but the title hook is lyrically weak and musically clumpy – there’s little impressive in the melody to shine a beacon to. In the Polish final Kasia managed to be victorious on virtue of taking the jury vote. Despite Polish voting trends I can see this needing to rely on the same trick in Kyiv to make the Grand Final.
Up fourth was Jowst from Norway. Unlike the other acts that came with a three song set list. We only got to hear ‘Grab The Moment’ from the Norwegian boys. The reason why was that the duo only came together for their Melodi Grand Prix participation, so have never collaborated on anything else. Thankfully the need for chemistry is low as both boys do their own thing on stage. Lead man Aleksander Walmann has a confident if understated stage presence and the hip-hop fusion track got the biggest reaction from the crowd as the last chorus kicked in.
A smart move on the night was to draw attention to the words with the lyric video on the backdrop. The complex and poetically strong lyrics of the verses are tough to keep up with and passed me by in the National Final performance. This, or something like it, could be a good looking backdrop for Norway to utilise.
The final one of Eurovision 2017’s acts on stage was Triana Park from host country Latvia. Of course they got a warm reaction from the crowd, but if anything that was from their other performances. Opening track ‘Sons and Daughters’ showed a far rockier and attitude filled performance than their eventual Eurovision song. In comparison ‘Line’ comes across a little too artsy to get the crowd reaching any meaningful crescendo.
Full Speed Ahead
The London Eurovision Party is this weekend, with Amsterdam coming on strong for the week after. Some of these acts have cleared their schedules to jet around the continent on an once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Who can fault them for grabbing the opportunity with both hands?
One must remember though that the vast majority of points will be made on that Eurovision stage, nothing is guaranteed before the show starts. Certainly there are acts who used preview events to normalise themselves in the fan community, and that gave them a kick. Conchita travelled more than any other artist in recent times to get her image out across the Eurovision lovers, and helped the character be adored come May. Måns broke through the whole ‘anti-gay’ commotion by hitting the preview events hard so those questions were buried come May.
There’s also the chance for preview events for acts to try out new things and see what clicks in front of the audience. I’ll point out Krista Siegfrids in 2013 as the ultimate benefactor of this with her lesbian kiss moment in Amsterdam that moved her to fan favourite status overnight. Those new things might have been minor in Riga, but the lyric video from Norway and bracelets from Belarus stand out as possible positives that might be carried forward. Other things may be ditched before the wider press sees all the acts and rehearsals.
In this era of intense promotional tours, it’s interesting the response from Justs about his time last year. When asked about his 2016 experience, Justs talked positively not about meeting the press, or preparing for Stockholm, but of getting to meet all the other performing artists so often and building their own mini Eurovision family.
If anything in a growing schedule in April the potential benefit of each preview event is even more diminished than ever before, but the chance to be a part of that big bubble arguably more rewarding for you as a person. It is funny how Aleksander from Norway described it as one big ‘band camp’ and how the acts were arguably more excited to be interviewed by team Wiwi than anything else in the afternoon sessions.
This is just pure fun, the dream come true, and we’re not even at Kyiv yet.
Many thanks go to the team from Eurovision Club Latvia, part of OGAE International, for their work in co-ordinating the PreParty Riga once again.