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Acoustic fest takes wing

Three years ago, promoter Kermit Weeks launched the Wings & Strings Music Festival with optimism.

Everything was in place on the property where his Fantasy of Flight museum sits near Polk City: a huge stage with state-of-the-art sound and lights, and dozens of food and beverage vendors. Most important, three days' worth of acoustic masters had been booked. Weeks' festival had everything except fans.

"We got kicked in the butt," he remembers. "We were doing things pretty blindly, and I guess we never figured people wouldn't show up."

Weeks, an aviation buff and a self-taught amateur musician, fell in love with the MerleFest Music Festival in North Carolina, an acoustic event that draws thousands of fans each year.

"I knew that this area had a solid fan base for acoustic-based music," Weeks said. "So it just took the desire to do it, plus, of course, the money."

He learned quickly that an event of the magnitude of Wings & Strings takes years to build up. Last year, things were more encouraging. The event drew twice the number of the first. With some creative scalebacks, Weeks hopes to at least reach the break-even point with this year's event, which kicks off today and runs through Sunday night.

"We've tried to focus on quality," Weeks said. "That's how you get people coming back. There are acts here this weekend that people don't often get a chance to see in Florida."

Weeks has lined up such notable standouts as bluegrass artists Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas, cajun star Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and Texas singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen. Festivalgoers can also attend workshops on instrumental technique and cajun and contra dancing, take hot air balloon rides and see the museum's vintage aircraft.

Today's performances begin at 3:30 with bluegrass band Wyatt Rice and Santa Cruz, followed by Blue Highway, Allan Shadd, South Ocean String Band, Callie Chappell, and Chesapeake.

Saturday's performances begin at noon and include Wyatt Rice and Santa Cruz, Blue Highway, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Front Range, Tim & Mollie O'Brien and the O'Boys, Trout Fishing in America, Roy Book Binder, Claire Lynch and Front Porch String Band, and Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas.

Sunday's events begin at 10:30 a.m. with gospel sets by Robin and Linda Williams and Claire Lynch and the Front Porch String Band. Other performers are Chesapeake, Tim & Mollie O'Brien, Sam Pacetti and Robert Earl Keen.

Tickets are $10 today, $20 per day Saturday and Sunday. Three-day passes are $50. Rough camping is available on site. Fantasy of Flight is at Interstate 4 and State Road 559 (exit 21) in Polk City. For further information call (941) 984-8445.

BEING MORRISSEY _ Three years ago an adamant (Steven) Morrissey told an interviewer at Billboard magazine: "I am not even vaguely interested in the idea of being a pop star or a rock star, or wearing leather trousers and telling everyone that I am the most wonderful person on earth. I'd like to think that in some way, I'm helping move pop music away from those notions."

There's little doubt that Morrissey continues to live up to his non-expectations. Since the 1987 dissolution of his seminal punk band The Smiths, the singer, with his maudlin persona and songs of self-pity, carries the banner for his disaffected middle-class fans. He lives his fabled life as an eccentric, provo of working-class ideals, occasionally recording an album and even less occasionally touring.

His enigmatic persona radiates a sardonic wit that is both charming and a little disturbing at times. Though critics have found him a favorite target over the years, his past two efforts, Southpaw Grammar and Maladjusted, have fared better than many of his previous albums. Thankfully, Morrissey has also become a more engaging live performer in recent years, overcoming a bad habit of showing up late for shows, or worse, not showing up at all.

Fans can catch Morrissey at 8 Wednesday at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater. Tickets are $27.75 and $25.75.

DINO FUNK _ The Ohio Players, street funk progenitors whose tunes Skin Tight, Love Rollercoaster and Fire helped liven up rock radio in the 1970s, are still around.

The band, with original members James "Diamond" Williams, Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner and Chet Willis, plays at 9 tonight at the KingsLawn (Cauldron Restaurant), 2302 E Seventh Ave. in Ybor City. Tickets are $20. Call 248-5694 for information.

GET TOASTED _ Recent weeks have seen a surge of West Coast ska bands in our midst. It seems only fitting that one of the two-tone world's original wave groups, the Toasters, make a stop here too.

Original frontman Rob "Bucket" Hingley has overseen the octet since the band's beginnings in New York in the early 1980s. Says Hingley of ska's booming popularity: "The nice thing is it's still underground and unspoiled, and I hope it stays that way. (In the early days) people laughed at me, saying, "You'll never get anywhere in the U.S. playing ska music.' So now we're having the last laugh."

You can catch the Toasters at 8 Saturday night at the State Theater along with Bim Skala Bim and the Strangeways. Tickets are $10.