First there was The Wait.

Then there was The Shot . . . heard only 'round the Beltway.

But the Nighthawks, for years the most popular band in the Washington area, say they don't care. Over a 10-year period, the hard-working rock and blues quartet has built an enthusiastic following, centered here but extending from Maine to Florida and into the Midwest. A bar owner's dream, the Hawks have filled a thousand and one nightspots with raucous boogie that drives people to drink.

They play sweat-hard and loud, with Mark Wenner's razor-sharp harmonica cutting into Jimmy Thackery's stinging guitar lines while bassist Jan Zukowski and drummer Pete Ragusa pile-drive the band's undiluted blues and rambunctious rock. The band is highly visible -- if you own a trucking business and can follow them around the country. A million miles and as many empty beer bottles later, the Nighthawks have earned the right to call the road home.

Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Johnny Winter and Carl Perkins are some of the musicians who have lined up to jam with them on the classic Chicago-style blues that forms the heart of their repertoire. The Hawks even put out seven small-label albums that sold well despite the limits of independent distribution.

And then the band got signed to that illusory "big label" deal, in this case with Mercury. Die-hard fans thought the Hawks would follow in the grooves of old friends and bill-mates like the J. Geils Band or George Thorogood and the Destroyers, who "used to look up at us with awe," as harp player Wenner recalled in a dressing room at the Bayou between sets Monday night.

Didn't happen, though. By the time the Mercury record came out last year, the people who had signed the Nighthawks had all been fired. Too few people bought the admittedly weak album. "There was a very frustrating period when we were touring the country on a record that was seemingly a dead issue," said the heavily tattooed Wenner. The band recorded a second album "and started getting negative feedback on it. We were somebody else's leftover business and we suddenly found ourselves in the sort of limbo we'd always said would never happen -- being lost on a big label, one of the acts down at the bottom of the pile."

"It might have been our fault," Wenner explained. "We came to them with such a 'We're independent, we know what we're doing' attitude that they were actually leery about telling us anything. They were respecting us and letting us do what we wanted . . . and letting us dig our own grave at the same time."

But now, it's bluesness as usual. After half a decade of 300-night-a-year tours, the Hawks have established their own lucrative circuit. "We can ease back and take advantage of what we've developed . . . as long as we don't stay away too long," says Ragusa. "There was a time when we had to tour Albany and Upstate New York in January," he shudders. "Now we can go South" -- including an annual Mardi Gras gig in New Orleans.

The band can also afford to take a month off, as it will in January. Taking time off means playing around town in new combinations with other Washington music perenials like Catfish Hodge and Bill Holland. The band also has a monthly mailing list of 7,000 and does strong business with mail-order and on-the-road merchandising of Nighthawks' T-shirts, baseball caps, buttons, bumper stickers, softball jerseys and albums. "We're talking mass marketing," laughs Ragusa.

The Hawks have always maintained reasonable, not great, expectations. The history of blues-based bands is long, but their successes are short. Of course, there are those Rolling Stones fellas, but even original black masters like Muddy Waters and James Cotton have struggled to survive in a limited marketplace. Several years ago, there was a push for what became known as Blue Wave, a blues-derived conspiracy with regional chapters in Washington (the Hawks, Charlottesville's Allstars and Richmond's Bill Blue Band), Delaware (Thorogood), Texas (Fabulous Thunderbirds, Cobras, Double Trouble) and Minnesota (Lamont Cranston).

"It's not dead," Wenner insists, "but it's peaked and it won't peak again for 10 or 12 years. But, hell, we were successful playing blues when we couldn't even tell club owners what we were playing. We were there before the Blue Wave and we'll be there after."

Georgetowners still remember the night several years ago when the Hawks and George Thorogood played on opposite corners of 34th Street (at the Cellar Door and Desperado's), startling and stopping nighttime traffic with an extended guitar jam on "Madison Blues" -- in the middle of M Street, courtesy of very long extension chords. That memory has replaced the "Greg Allman" legend which followed the Hawks for a time. In 1978, Allman would often sit in with the band at their various gigs and it looked as if he would either become a Hawk, or they would become his new Brothers. Then, just before the first big official tour, Allman disappeared for six months without a word. Obviously, that project never materialized; just as well, the Hawks say, because Allman couldn't keep up with their pace.

The disappointment with Mercury (which dropped them after rejecting the finished master of the follow-up album) has been turned around by the Nighthawks' enthusiasm for their latest project, a live album being recorded at the Bayou this week. "We have a dual attitude," Wenner says. "We can survive as a cult band, but we think we also have the ability to eventually cross over to the major public. If we ever have a hit," he laughs, "I think we're all mature enough to take advantage of that. But in the meantime, we can survive outside the whole industry hit-making machinery."

The live album will feature the band's original material "so we don't have to pay anybody," Wenner says with a wink. "Actually, it's been a fantasy to do it this way all along. We never had the resources or the know-how to pull it off. It's our own working money all the way through," he adds proudly.

There seems to be no bitterness about the missed Mercury shot at the Gold Ring. "We've seen too many people drop it," says Zukowski. "How long do you get to hold it? And look what it does to so many people. We don't feel like we're failures."

Wenner adds: "Some people feel that playing in a bar is just a steppingstone and they don't enjoy it while they're there. There's bluegrass bands that have been together 20 years and never had a song played on mainstream radio . . . and they sell a lot of records and play four nights a week. There's no reason a blues band or a rock band can't take the same approach and just go about their business and have a good time. We just want to keep things rolling.