- Associated Press
Saturday, May 26, 2012

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN (AP) - Amid the usual jamboree of youthful exuberance _ and questionable taste _ this year’s Eurovision Song Contest featured a pair of elderly acts among its most high-profile contenders.

The night opened with some two-note crooning by the UK’s black-clad veteran act Engelbert Humperdinck, who Scottish comedian Robert Florence acerbically remarked on Twitter looked “like an inaccurate waxwork of Johnny Cash.”

Russia’s Buranovskiye Babushki, a group of six grannies, offered a similarly static stage show, but did liven up their act “Party for Everybody” with some choreographed baking in an onstage oven.

The 57-year-old pan-European competition viewed by some 125 million people worldwide is hailed by its legion of devoted fans as harmless, kitschy fun that allows Europeans to forget their differences _ and economic troubles _ for at least one night.

The winner is picked by juries and television viewers across the continent, so a broad appeal is deemed key to success.

Singing for Albania, Rona Nishliu, carefully balancing an elaborate braid, gave a frankly terrifying and ear-shattering rendition of indescribable “Suus.”

Europe’s more boring countries lived down to expectations with performances that were forgotten even before they were over. Slow ballads were the flavor of the evening, with Estonia arguably achieving new depths of bland.

Past the half-way mark, Romania’s six-piece Mandinga mercifully livened up proceedings with a pounding musical potpourri of bagpipes and brass, extravagant wardrobe choices, and a sultry performance by lead vocalist Elena Ionescu.

Bookmakers favorite Loreen, a 28-year-old Swede of Moroccan-Berber descent, went for the windswept look as she battled a wind machine to belt out the club music-lite hit “Euphoria” and assay some vaguely robotic dance moves.

Moldova’s Pasha Parfeny ended the night’s two-hour proceedings with a pleasantly upbeat gypsy ditty backed up some cheery, bright-bloused beaties.

As last year’s winner, oil-rich Azerbaijan is hosting the annual competition. Few think it stands any chance of a repeat victory, but the country hopes the hundreds of millions of dollars it has invested in preparing for the event will serve as a public relations coup and mitigate misgivings about its poor democracy and human rights record.

The host country, a comparatively little-known former Soviet republic, has dug deep to make sure it’s also a star.

The new Crystal Hall concert venue, a light-bathed arena on a point jutting out into the Caspian Sea, cost $134 million to build and was put up in a speedy eight months. Countless more millions have been deployed embellishing the capital, Baku, and buying a huge fleet of brand new London-style taxis.

Such profligacy has aroused concerns about the spiraling costs involved in holding the contest in times of austerity.

“At the moment, if the costs are growing more and more every year and it needs to be more splendid, there are countries that would have huge difficulties, especially with financial situation in Europe at the moment, in organizing it,” said Annika Nyberg Frankenhauser, media department for the European Broadcasting Union, under whose auspices Eurovision is held.

Still, on the night, the rain fell hard, although diehard Eurovision fans in Baku were not deterred and stuck it out on the windswept seafront promenade to cheer along their singer in front of the big mega-screen provided.

Amid the glitz, antigovernment activists have held a number of protests in the week running up to the final, seizing on the opportunity of the increased international media presence to draw attention to what they describe as the government’s authoritarian style of rule.

On Friday, police quickly shut down a small flash mob near the competition venue, roughly dragging away dozens of demonstrators and stuffing them into waiting buses, at least of one which bore a Eurovision logo.

Three demonstration participants were sentenced to jail terms of five and six days on Saturday, while 17 others were fined 20-25 manat ($25-32).

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