The first thing you've got to understand about the Wammies is that it isn't so much about who wins what -- most of the winners are off somewhere else playing a gig anyway. And it's certainly not about paying attention. The crowd, decked out in leather and lace, beehives and dreadlocks, is always rowdy and rambunctious, the sort of audience that doesn't feel much like simmering down. So what if they jabber straight through the Puccini? It's not like they're going to stint on the applause.

Everybody gets a warm reception at the Washington Area Music Awards, held last night at the State Theatre in Falls Church. After all, the Wammies are about honoring them and theirs, giving props to people who make music in a town that's better known for making a different kind of noise. The folks at the Wammies aren't just preaching to the choir, they are the choir. And so they recognize.

Some of those who got the nod of recognition last night -- like homegrown girl made good MeShell Ndegeocello -- left town a long time ago, or maybe they just got here -- like if that group's name is Eddie From Ohio. No matter. Washington still claims them, as it has claimed, in past Wammies, Emmylou Harris, Joan Jett, the Clovers, the Orioles, Bo Diddley, Jorma Kaukonen, Jimmy Dean, Chuck Brown, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Ruth Brown, Marvin Gaye, LaVern Baker and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

"Everybody who is nominated is definitely a winner," Storm the Unpredictable said as he accepted his award for best rapper, "because everybody is doing their thing." Indeed. The Wammies are nothing if not an egalitarian affair -- perhaps too egalitarian. With 100 awards handed out, just about everybody's a winner and just about everybody is Special, with awards for Special Appreciation (WPGC radio personality Michel Wright and the late Chuck Levin, founder of the Washington Music Center in Wheaton) and Special Recognition (The Washington Post's Nightwatch columnist, Eric Brace, on leave to pursue a full-time music career) and Special Achievement (Billboard magazine's Tim White and Bill Holland) and a Spotlight Award (Thievery Corporation).

There were a whole lot of awards and, for a music show, far too little music. There were long stretches between music sets; the pit band that played while the musicians set up was a little too mellow. Still, there were a few highlights. Storm the Unpredictable and Priest da Nomad dished out old-school rap about the joys of women who come super-sized: "I hate the way that society makes it that for a woman to be beautiful she has to be a size 3/ In fact if you ain't pushing 170 pounds sit down . . . If you wanna be with Storm, you shoulda ate your plate up / Shorty get your weight up."

Welbilt served up a set that was at once moody and rocking. Too bad there weren't more like it. What was missing from the evening was energy, the spirit of performance, some rabble-rousing, some histrionics, some noise -- noise beyond the din that was emanating from the bar. Artists are normally a political lot, but there was only passing reference to the war that's almost at hand: "This is Bill Kirchen's army of guitarists," Gerald Scott, one of the evening's emcees, said as a gaggle of guitarists -- 39 of them -- took to the stage, "and this is the only army that we should be sending to Iraq."

Everybody seemed to applaud for that one, and as Louise Kirchner performed John Lennon's antiwar anthem "Imagine" ("Imagine there's no Heaven"), the audience briefly sang along, infusing the number with a post-Lennon, post-9/11, pre-Gulf War II kind of twang. From the wistful hush in the audience, it was safe to say which side of the war debate this crowd was on.

Spur of the Moment won for urban duo or group, while go-go veterans Rare Essence won the Hall of Fame award for dedication to the Washington music scene. Miss Mac, the group's manager, died a week before. Nicki Gonzalez won for best jazz vocalist -- she had a gig last night -- and the man who accepted the award in her honor urged everyone to head down to U-topia to celebrate with her.

Honky Tonk Confidential snared the award for best country duo/group. The rock duo/group award went to the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours.

Ruthie Logsdon took the honors for country vocalist, while MeShell Ndegeocello won for best urban contemporary vocalist. (Ndegeocello might be a homegirl, but everyone stumbled over her name.) Logsdon was there, Ndegeocello was not.

"It's wonderful to have artists here if they win their awards," Scott said. "But it's more wonderful if they're working."

Some groups are working more than others, and some groups took home more awards than others. Deanna Bogart was named musician of the year, songwriter of the year and a few other things, and go-go great Chuck Brown swept that genre's category, including the prizes for best group, instrumentalist and recording. Brace was named best roots rock vocalist and his band, Last Train Home, was named artist of the year as well as best roots rock band. Album of the year was Honky Tonk Confidential's "Your Trailer or Mine."

"As we travel around," Thievery Corporation's Rob Garza said while accepting the group's Spotlight Award, "people always ask us, 'How does music like this come from Washington, D.C.?' It's fascinating. Washington is a very small city. But you've got such great music in this place."

A complete list of winners can be found at washingtonpost.com

Bill Kirchen performs at last night's 17th Annual Washington Area Music Awards.Bill Kirchen's DC Guitar Army plays "Imagine" at last night's Washington Area Music Awards at the State Theatre. Left, Little Pink's Mary Battiata and Andy Rutherford.