This is the first in a series of columns by Joel Sparks, also known as Mr. Joel to the readers of his DC Shows List. He also writes for On Tap magazine and BigYawn.net.

In The Dark

Character, they say, is what you are in the dark. In that case, local bandleader J.P. McDermott has the character of a true professional, and the voice to match. At Saturday night's CD release party for his first full-length, Last Fool Here, the heavy rains knocked the power out half an hour before showtime, but the show went on nonetheless.

At 9 PM, the Half-Moon BBQ sat square in the middle of a two-block stretch of Georgia Avenue where the only lights came from passing cars, plus plenty of fire trucks, cops, and ambulances. At 9:30, owner Marc Gretschel stood on the sidewalk in the misting rain, assuring curious patrons that yes, the power was out, yes, the beer taps worked, and yes, in the back room, J.P. McDermott & Western Bop were playing -- very unplugged. Stepping into the bar provided a rare glimpse into a previous time and place -- say, Appalachia before the great rural electrification projects of the 1930s. Patrons gathered in the twilight glow of a few candles. Cups and bottles crossed the bar one way and handfuls of cash went the other, to disappear mysteriously, without the normal chime of a register. Beer in hand, you followed the sound of acoustic guitar up the stairs to the back room and into another level of darkness, away from any windows. You knew the room was packed -- you could hear the people, you could sense their mass, you could even smell them. But the darkness was deep, palpable, dreamlike. It was like having your head under the covers in a winter midnight. Here and there, someone groping for room to stand or a place to set a drink would flick a lighter or open a cel phone -- intermittent fireflies. As your vision adjusted, you could see a little ambient light through the open back door, outlining the silhouettes of people dancing. And through the dark cut a mighty voice: barking, yipping, crooning, howling, and vibrating with all the controlled pathos and bon vivance that the soul of rockabilly could demand. Drowning out the acoustic guitar of Bob Newscaster and easily dominating even the full drumset and upright bass, McDermott's voice boomed out of his torso and knifed to the back of the room, soared up to the balcony, and even stretched all the way down to the front bar. He belted out Johnny Cash and plenty of Elvis Presley from the Sun Sessions and his own utterly authentic compositions, and he wasn't about to let a little thing like a failed power grid stop him. At 10:30, someone returned from a long trip to fetch a generator, and staff prepared to start taking the set apart and rebuilding it with this gas engine plugged in. But JP shook his head, said, "We ain't stopping now," and played on in the campfire night. His thoughts must have been on the troubadours of a previous century as well, because he introduced "the first country song ever recorded, in 1902, a hundred and three years ago," and the quartet launched into a reverently rocking "Wreck of the Old 97".

At 10:45 the lights came on, to general cheering. The band finished out the unplugged set and took a well-earned break, and the fully-wired third half of the show kicked off at 11:30. "This is easy now," said McDermott. Andy Rutherford joined Newscaster, drawing fireworks from dueling casters, and three old-fashioned mics caught the backup vocals, now able to compete with Louie Newmayer's bass and Tom Bowe's drumming. Feet visible, more folks braved the dance floor, including one young woman who treated the insistent honky-tonk beats as a personal aerobics track. The crowd stayed heavy throughout, enthusiastically greeting every song, including a heartaching rendition of the album's jukebox-perfect title track. Many took the opportunity to get McDermott's autograph on the CD, a masterful collection of rockabilly five years in the making and worth the wait. Try listening to it in the dark.