Teresa Gunn is a tough cookie. Wearing outsized earrings, a rumpled black jacket and a tilted beret, this diminutive blond belts out her original songs with a surprisingly big voice. Backed by a hard-hitting three-man rhythm section, Gunn quickly dominates the local rock clubs that she plays regularly.

Lately, however, she has found herself questioning her reasons for staying in rock 'n' roll. "Booking the band month after month," she reflects, "is an essential but ulcerous chore. Putting out a record every year is professionally necessary but personally financially devastating. The live show, of course, is its own reward. Still, I need something else, a reason to continue other than just 'making it.' "

She found that reason at Martha's Table. This 4-year-old volunteer organization runs eight different programs for the hungry and homeless in downtown Washington. Gunn went down to 14th Street three years ago to see the programs in action and came away believing this was one cause she could support. So she began calling musicians and nightclubs in town to organize "Washington Rocks Against Hunger."

Her efforts bear fruit this weekend when 14 bands will play five benefit shows in four nightclubs. Every dollar of admission collected at the door will go directly to Martha's Table.

"We were working on this project long before Live Aid happened," Gunn notes pointedly, "but Live Aid has certainly made it easier. Both musicians and audiences are more accepting of rock benefits now. For a long time, rock 'n' roll musicians have been associated with drugs and self-indulgence, but now we realize we have the power to do something positive by raising money. I think artists have always had a want and a need to help, but they haven't known how. Now they know."

"Washington Rocks Against Hunger" begins Friday at Friendship Station with Root Boy Slim, Interrobang and Little Big, and continues there Saturday with the Dynettes, Bob E. Rock & Friends and One Law. Elsewhere Saturday night, the Teresa Gunn Group, City of Lights and the Lamonts will play at the Gentry, while XIO and 11th Hour play at d.c. space. The weekend concludes with Jr. Cline & the Recliners, Switchblade and the New Keys at Club Saba Sunday night.

"I've been looking for something like this for several months," Cline explains. "It's the one thing I can do with the music that means something more than just having fun. I got involved when I heard it was for hungry kids. I have two kids that are doing real well, but I see a lot of kids that aren't doing so well. We had to do something about it; I don't want anybody starving in our own back yard if I can help it."

"I got involved with Martha's Table because I'm a mother," Gunn says. "It pains me to think there are children my son's age who are hungry. I've been through some rough times when I didn't eat so my son could; I know what it's like. I like Martha's Table because they don't have an office staff that has to be paid; all the money goes to hungry people. It's a place where local musicians can make an impact: They're small potatoes; we're small potatoes. It was a good fit."

"It was real easy working with the musicians," says Veronica Maz, the founder and president of Martha's Table, who will attend each of the benefit shows. "When you deal with the government, you have to fill out forms and go to a meeting to make a proposal. With Teresa and the musicians, they contacted us and then went and organized it themselves. It just proves that everyone can do something to help the hungry and homeless if they just use their imagination. A musician can play a benefit concert; a truck driver can make deliveries of food; even a person at home can make a few extra sandwiches."

"This has given me a reason to feel genuine about the music again," says Gunn, who hopes to release her first full-length album, "I Belong," before Christmas. "As an artist, you always have doubts about why you're playing music. Are you doing it just to stay up late and party with your friends? Are you acting like a clown on stage? Now, for one night at least, I'll know that I'm doing it to help someone else."