EVEN IN THE age of techs-mix music, Washington remains a good town for roots-blues music. The R&B clubs are booming and the audiences are faithful, and the camaraderie of cool-lovers pays off in the easy assurance of the new "In Orbit" album by longtime local swing smoothies Tom Principato & Powerhouse.

This Powerhouse is a slightly less rambunctious version of last year's Miller Genuine Draft tour entry: Principato, drummer Big Joe Maher and bassist Jeff Sarli, with the additional leavening of keyboardist Kevin McKendree. A little less bar & B, a little more swing, Powerhouse has matured into a jazz-informed roots band that Principato hopes is both authentic and accessible.

"I hope it will be viewed as contemporary," he says. "I don't think it's nostalgia -- it's classic, but it doesn't really recreate the songs. I think it's the best Tom Principato album yet. I just love the way the ensemble feels and the way it sounds, and I think it has some of my strongest playing and singing."

Although there is ample evidence of Principato's guitar prowess, "In Orbit" is anything but a star trip. In fact, it's so decidedly an group effort that Principato almost seems to have physically stepped back, splitting the vocal chores with Maher. "You know, I've seen {Maher} in bands where he never got to open his mouth. But he's a great singer, let him sing!" says Principato.

Principato's increasingly tailored style shows a similar relaxation. "It's a natural transformation for me," he says of the less pop, more swing-roots arrangements. "It's a little more accepted in Europe, where we do really well. I think they're more quality-oriented and less faddish, and they think of blues and roots music as more art-based."

Aside from four originals -- two instrumentals by Principato, including the title track, and one each from Sarli and Maher -- "In Orbit" shows off Principato's badger nose for obscure blues; of the other seven tracks, four are of uncertain provenance.

"I've always been sort of an archivist, digging up songs and pulling them out," Principato says. "One of them, in fact, 'My Baby Don't Love No One But Me,' never even came out on a record album; it was only off a movie soundtrack . . . and I don't even know the name of the movie."

Principato and Powerhouse play a round of record-release concerts beginning Friday at 5 with a free WAMA/Miller concert on Freedom Plaza, along with the Linwood Taylor Band; and later Friday at the Grog & Tankard; Saturday at the G&T in Baltimore; Sunday at Whitey's in Arlington; Wednesday at J. T. Seville's in Camp Springs; and next Friday and Saturday (Aug. 24 and 25) at the Roxy and the Last Chance Saloon in Columbia, respectively.

FEATS OF DARING: Somehow, Washington should be more hip. At least it should have a better sense of humor. It has the benefit of not one but two flagrantly independent record-store owners who not only stock a wide range of local music but actively support it -- Yesterday & Today's Skip Groff through his Y&T label and the unabashed musical/political grafitti that pass for his weekly City Paper ads; and Record Paradise's Joe Lee, who has been known to turn his Aspen Hill parking lot into a forum for demonstrations in support of embattled WHFS deejay Damien Einstein.

Lee has his fingers in two more pies this month: "Of Flesh and Blood," the lurid, B-film bio of onetime porno superstar Johnny Holmes from ex-No Trend frontman Jeff Mentges that had its "world premiere" at the Biograph last week; and a new Little Feat fanzine called Featprints, which the first issue says "will hopefully be published" (and it does have a sort of hopeful tone) every three or four months.

Lee is just one of the local types with roles in "Of Flesh and Blood"; in fact, Mentges, who worked at Joe's, met his "star," school janitor Breon, because he hung out there. Mentges also raised part of the shoestring budget of "Flesh and Blood" by selling his record collection to Lee (get over there quick). Other familiar faces in the flick include onetime WGTB faves "Doc" Joe Sasfy and Steve Lorber; original Sex Change sideman Dick Bangham; and Phantasmagoria's big man-at-large Earl "Nat-Man" Thomas.

Featprints is a TV Guide-sized cut-and-paste job of old newspaper and magazine clippings plus concert reviews, a discography and chronology, commentary and the beginnings of a marketplace in Feat collectibles. Copies are available for $2 at Joe's Record Paradise; or send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to P.O. Box 603, Mt. Airy, MD 21771-0603. Little Feat returns Thursday with John Hiatt to Merriweather Post Pavilion (lawn seats only; $16.50, 800/543-3041).

Incidentally, a similar fan sheet, the "No Method Newsletter," has just appeared from the "Van Morrison Appreciation Society" in Arlington. According to a letter co-founder Mike Fishman sent to Caledonia Productions, "This newsletter will be devoted to discussing various ideas, disciplines, and awareness that Morrison's music has led us to, as well as poetry, philosophy and Zen Awareness."

Got that? Literary and financial contributions should be addressed to Jack Turner, 3411 N. 17th St., Arlington, VA 22207. We mention this as a way of reminding you that pavilion seats for Van Morrison's Sept. 5 show at Merriweather Post are also sold out; for lawn seats ($17.50) call 800/543-3041.