FRIDAY night is the first of this summer's Weekend's Weekends, four concerts of local music held at the Carter Barron amphitheater. Sponsored by us here at the Weekend section of The Washington Post, the concerts are free and a good chance for you folks to catch some of the area's best musical talent. This week's concert is a blues night with headliners the Hardway Connection. Also onthe bill are blues guitarist Cathy Ponton King as well as the Crow Valley Band. Free tickets will be released at the Carter Barron box office starting at noon on the day of each performance. The amphitheater is in Rock Creek Park; its entrance is on Colorado Avenue NW just west of 16th Street NW. For information, call 202/334-4748.

DOING IT THE HARD WAY

Almost 20 years ago, guitarist Robert Owens, bassist Andre Spears and pianist Gary Aukard were jamming together in Owens's house, running through the soul, blues, gospel and R&B repertoire they had in common. Between songs, they'd compare notes on the different bands each was playing in; how difficult it was to take those bands to the next level; how annoying some band mates were; how hard it was to find sympathetic musicians to play with.

"Finally I said to them, `Every time we turn around it's the three of us here jamming together and having fun,' " Owens says. " `We already get along,' I said, `so we're going to form a band and it's going to be called the Hardway Connection.' That's because we were always talking about how hard it was to find the right people to play with, and because the three of us already had the musical connection."

And so it was that in 1980, the Hardway Connection was born, first as a quartet (with various drummers), then growing over the years to its present size as an eight-piece band. The band's new CD, "It Must Be Love," is easily one of my favorites so far this year, and a trip to Pomonkey in Charles County last week convinced me that Hardway is one of the best live bands in the area. Ford's Bar, a small roadhouse along Route 224, was packed and sweaty as Hardway ran through four sets of music. The dancers would take breaks to get some amazing fried chicken and a cold beer, but they were soon back on the floor.

With four strong lead singers, Hardway is an astonishing vocal group. Owens only sings a few songs now, leaving most of the duties to Jerome Mackall, Floyd Haywood and Toni Love.

"Early on, a fellow who owned the Five Points nightclub in Northeast told me he wanted to introduce me to a young fellow," Owens says. "So I walked in there and I thought the jukebox was on, 'cause I heard Al Green, but I turned around and it was this guy singing. I couldn't believe his voice, so I asked the owner of the club who that was, and he said that that was Jerome Mackall, the guy he wanted us to meet. I asked him right away if he wanted to play a gig we had coming up, and he's been with us ever since."

With a falsetto better than the artist-formerly-known-as-Prince's and a strong stage presence, Mackall could probably carry things himself, but in the case of Hardway, more really is more. Haywood joined after sitting in one night with Hardway on a song. "A girl came up and said `I have a friend here who wants to sing a song,' " says Owens, "and I said `Sure, what's his name?', and she said `Floyd Haywood.' Well, I remembered him, from the scene, and knew he was a bad blues singer. I used to go hear him sing in other bands. After that I asked him if he wanted to join." Haywood and organist Raymond Blake joined about the same time around 1990, then drummer Teddy Richardson, then Love came aboard five years ago.

"We'd already secured strong harmonies, with all of us singing, but I got tired of people coming up and asking `Y'all got a girl singer? Y'all got a girl singer?' " Owens says. "One night I went into a club and heard Toni singing. I loved her voice, and that was that. I asked her to join and she did." Love came to shows just to watch for a few weeks, before beginning to sing with Hardway. "Of course I was totally frightened," she says laughing. "They were so good. And I didn't think I was a blues singer, but they pushed me into it. And I've learned that all you need is to know the blues, then you can sing it, and I've known it all my life. I used to never want to sing the blues because it was so sad, but I found out that singing it makes me feel good."

Eight years ago, the Hardway Connection recorded a gospel record and stopped performing in nightclubs, but gradually the more secular side of the music resurfaced, and the band made its way back onto the club scene. In 1994 Hardway won first prize as the best band in the International Blues Competition in Memphis, and has been making a name for itself in blues circles ever since. The band's powerful vocal arrangements allow Hardway to stand out from the pack, and that's something Owens wanted from the start. Growing up in Virginia Beach, he'd hear music by his uncle, soul singer Don Covay, and met lots of Covay's musical friends: Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding. "I remember Wilson Pickett staying at my mother's house," he says, "and I'd sit at the piano and try to sing along with him and all the others who'd stop by. I always loved singing and having lots of voices." That rich vocal sound defines the Hardway Connection, and makes it much more than a blues band. "We're a blues band, but just like [WPFW DJ] Bill Wax said, we're a soulful blues band."

* To hear a free Sound Bite from the Hardway Connection, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8113. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

KING'S JOURNEY

"At some point, when I was still a kid growing up in Hyattsville, I don't know what came over me," says Cathy Ponton King. "I had a burning insatiable quest: to get a guitar and play it." Another girl in the neighborhood beat her to that six-stringed grail and that furthered King's resolve. "After she got hers, I couldn't sleep until I got one."

Happily, King was soon sleeping soundly, the proud owner of a new guitar. During her waking hours she rarely let her new axe out of her hands, and we, the listening audience, are reaping the rewards of King's childhood tenacity, more than 30 years later.

At a recent Madam's Organ appearance, King showed her mastery of nearly the whole sweep of the blues spectrum, from rocking Chicago-style romps to R&B-based horn workouts to slower, smoldering delta blues. Her guitar solos were inventive and passionate, and she was clearly enjoying playing music for the raucous crowd.

"It's true, I love being on stage," King admits. "I've been performing as long as I can remember." She was the only girl of the nine Ponton kids, and at gatherings of their extended Irish-American family, a performance was expected. "My family had these huge parties that my grandmother hosted, and everybody took a turn singing a song, even all the kids," King says. "It's part of the Irish tradition. You turned off the record player and took turns singing some heartfelt song, so performing was ingrained in me very early. I've never had stagefright."

After she got her guitar, she began playing along to the records of the day -- Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and the rest of the late '60s pantheon. Then when in college at the University of Maryland, King discovered the college radio station's record library and spent hours delving into its blues collection. "I don't know why the blues grabbed me like it did," says King, "but it did. I would listen to those records for hours and hours."

Then when her friends the Nighthawks opened a show for Muddy Waters at the long-gone Cellar Door club in Georgetown one night, King was there, and somehow ended up backstage in a long conversation with the blues legend himself. "It was his 65th birthday and there was a case of champagne in his dressing room," King recalls. "We just sat there and talked and talked. He was the warmest human being, with a kind word for everyone and a twinkle in his eye. And on top of that he was one of the heaviest musicians to ever walk the earth."

King never looked back after that. It was the blues and nothing but the blues from then on. She formed several bands, including the Rhythm Masters, before going out under her own name (adding King after she was married). She released a CD in 1994 that showcased her songwriting abilities, and it's the writing more than the playing that keeps King going. "There are so many great blues songs out there, so it's a challenge to create something fresh and new within the blues," she says. "If I hear something good, then I'm inspired to try to write something as good or better. I enjoy writing the songs so much that it's never crossed my mind to give it up."

Keep track of King and her music by checking the Web site: www.zptduda.com/cpk/index.htm .

* To hear a free Sound Bite from Cathy Ponton King, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8112. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)

CAPTION: The Hardway Connection, in front of Ford's Bar in Pomonkey, has grown from a quartet to an eight-piece group.

CAPTION: Cathy Ponton King's love affair with blues guitar began when she was growing up in Hyattsville and continues to this day.