An enthusiastic full house assembled at the Capital Centre last week to spend an evening with Earth, Wind and Fire, the internationally renowned rock group that got its biggest early career boost from Washington-area record buyers.

So, when the show started more than an hour late, a lot of people were feeling somewhat put down. Their feelings might have been even more intense had they known what was going on backstage: Nothing.

In fact, Verdine White, the bass player, was reclining in his dressing room all the while, watching television and sipping tea, trying, he said, to relax.

In ultimate coolspeak, out of the side of his mouth, he allowed, "We are just trying to get into the right frame of mind to put on a great show. We owe D.C. so much."

It turned out to be a disappointing evening at the Capital Centre as hundreds of bored ticket holders tired of waiting and flooded the concourse. Indeed, the hallway -- not the stage -- was where the action was both last Wednesday and Thursday nights even after the concerts started.

The sideshows included fist fights, dice games and continuous fashion shows. (One woman wore a sheer nylon body suit that left nothing to the imagination.) And there was plenty of cheap marijuana, cut with parsley leaves and sold by the nickle bag from Capital Centre restrooms.

"This is a rip-off," summed up Benny Haskell, a 17-year-old Ballou High School student. He was not even talking about the herb. "I paid all that money ( $11) for a ticket and they aren't even jamming like they used to. I'd rather walk the halls."

For $4, many women had their pictures taken in the hallway with a lifesize cutout of Teddy Pendergrass. He, or it, was a big attraction both nights.

"Some of these girls aren't too ugly," quipped Winfield McNeill, manager of the Soul Photo booth. "I mean, I'll promise 'em a date with the stars if they will pose."

Inside the concert hall, as Earth, Wind and Fire compressed some of D.C.'s favorite songs into disconcerting medleys, a disgruntled restlessness began to fill the arena. Soon, groups of youths started roaming the concourse. Trouble brewed.

"You can't pass without a ticket," John Baesanka, 23, a third-year ticket checker, told one of three muscular youths trying to push past him into the hall.

Soon, three youths turned to six. When one of them tried to sneak past, Baesanka grabbed his arm. Suddenly, from three sides, fists pounded Baesanka's head. When a fellow ticket checker moved in to help, he too was pemmeled.

"I had just come back from getting some aspirins for a headache because the music was so loud," Baesanka said afterwards, holding his head. "This is the roughest concert I've been to."

Farther down the hallway, Melvin Simmons stood behind a waist high trash can, calling out for passers by to try to beat him at his own game -- the shell and pea, using bottle caps. Within minutes, dozens of men crowded around him, pulling out $5s, $10s and $20s to bet that they could pick the bottle cap that covered the pea.

"Wigs, twigs, come on and catch the greasy pig," Simmons called out. "This ain't no bad sin, it's easy to win," he shouted in his rhythmic rhyme, steadily raking stacks of money off the top of the trash can. Looking up, he noticed men from American Control, Inc., heading his way to put a stop to his efforts.

At a table not far away, Bernita Reeves and Nancy Hall were trying to register the young crowd to vote. Their sponsors, the Commission for the Advancement of Policy Affecting Youth, the Disadvantaged and the Poor, headed by Martin Luther King III, had asked Earth, Wind and Fire to make an announcement urging the audience to register.

The group, however, did not.