Magic! pulls out all its tricks at El Rey Theatre

Magic! pulls out all its tricks at El Rey Theatre
Nasri Atweh of Magic! performs Tuesday night at the El Rey Theatre. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

"How do you want to be remembered?" asks Nasri Atweh in the final song on his band's debut album, "Don't Kill the Magic." The band, we should clarify, is called Magic! (complete with exclamation point). And in keeping with such a dramatic name, Atweh offers several high-flown options in response: "As a sinner or a saint?" he sings, "A hero or a villain?"

For Atweh himself, the choices are more concrete: Will he be remembered for his work behind the scenes or in the spotlight? A successful producer and songwriter who's helped create hits for Justin Bieber and Pitbull, Atweh is now seeking stardom of his own with Magic!, an L.A.-based four-piece whose breezy pop-reggae tune "Rude" is shaping up as one of the summer's biggest songs.


His decision seemed clear Tuesday night at the El Rey Theatre, where Magic! marked the release of its album with a well attended concert. Wearing a rose-patterned shirt unbuttoned nearly to his navel, Atweh eagerly offered every trick in the rock-star handbook.

He thrust his pelvis. He raised his hand to the sky. And for "How Do You Want to Be Remembered," he sat on a stool and strummed an acoustic guitar. (Is there really a rock-star handbook? Atweh made you think there is.)

The display was appealing enough, in no small part because it accompanied as lightweight a sound as you'll hear right now on the radio. In its blend of rock guitars and reggae rhythms, Magic! recalls the Police, only minus the sexual tension and Cold War paranoia that made that band feel important. Basically, if Bruno Mars' recent Police homage, "Locked Out of Heaven," struck you as too aggressive, "Rude" is the song for you.

At the El Rey, that harmlessness meant that Atweh could drop to his knees as he sang "No Evil" -- a song about looking for someplace "where the devil cannot find us" -- without summoning any of Sting's oppressive self-regard. But he also didn't summon any of Sting's polish.

Onstage, Magic! put across an amateurish vibe that was at odds with the slick professionalism of its album, which of course was made in Atweh's comfort zone: the recording studio.

A No. 1 hit on Billboard's digital songs chart, "Rude" in particular is a little marvel of songcraft, in which Atweh sets you up for a tune about a proposal, then reveals that he's actually asking a woman's father if he'll allow the marriage. (The dad says no, inspiring the song's title.)

Here, though, "Rude" felt dinky, lacking not muscle but propulsion; it just kind of lay there, accepting defeat even as the song's narrator fights it.

But perhaps the success of "Rude" has simply drained all the challenge from playing it. Atweh was never more animated on Tuesday than when recounting the 16 years he said he spent looking for a record deal before Pitbull's manager, Charles Chavez, agreed to sign Magic!.

"This is the beginning," the singer told the crowd excitedly near the end of the show.

Well, maybe.

Twitter: @mikaelwood