By EW Staff
Updated April 02, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Perhaps the prevailing spirit of the 18th annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, held March 17 through 20 in Austin, was summed up best by Hives singer Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist: ”Welcome to the A&R person’s spring break!” Actually, make that spring break for just about anyone who could pony up the bucks for SXSW’s four nonstop days of bands, booze, barbecue, and banter. In contrast with past years, there was a minimum of weeping and gnashing of teeth about album sales being in the toilet or the evils of illegal downloading; by and large, folks just got on with the business of checking out the music. And with more than 1,000 acts playing, there was plenty of it. Herewith, some of the highs — and lows.

BUZZ BANDS WE ACTUALLY CAUGHT A BUZZ FROM The Secret Machines, from New York by way of Dallas, who laced their thundering Zeppelin stomp with gauzy, narcotic riffs, playing no less than three separate shows during the fest; TV on the Radio, an ambitiously avant-garde multiculti rock coalition from Brooklyn, who performed their stormy, dark music to a crowd of hushed acolytes on a blindingly sunny outdoor patio; Franz Ferdinand, a Scottish band whose riveting, Gang of Four-ish rock kept folks away from the pool tables at Buffalo Billiards; and the Hives, whose live act at punk-rock dive Emo’s was so frenetically entertaining we really wish they’d get busy completing that new album.

BANDS THAT SHOULD GENERATE BUZZ The Honeydogs, who brought their sci-fi Americana to the homey Cedar Street Courtyard; World/Inferno Friendship Society, a raucous, nine-person punk cabaret act that introduced a welcome touch of anarchy to the cozy Caucus Patio; British balladeer-keyboardist Aqualung (a.k.a. Matt Hales), who played in a parking lot; Pelican — who rocked Emo’s Jr. with their sludgy instrumental doom metal; and the Reputation, a hook-savvy indie-pop quartet fronted by Elizabeth Elmore, a recent law-school grad whose thoughtful songs made the Blender Bar at the Ritz feel that much more intimate.

BANDS THAT SHOULD BUZZ OFF The Bronx (from L.A. — go figure), a hardcore-noise outfit (just signed to Island) who didn’t let not having any songs stop them from playing a punishing 40-minute set at Emo’s Jr.; Detroit’s Von Bondies, whose lackluster garage stylings at a sweltering Spin magazine party (where they preceded the Hives) just made you feel like slapping them (oh, wait, Jack White already did that).

DANCE THIS MESS AROUND (AGAIN) Both the B-52’s and Camper Van Beethoven proved that reunion isn’t always a dirty word, while the reconstituted Big Star — the big-ticket act Friday night at the Austin Music Hall — delivered a particularly invigorating set that bodes well for their pending comeback album.

POLITICAL PRISONERS OF THE WEEK Two members of good-time world-beat band Ozomatli and their manager were arrested after they led a conga line out onto the streets March 18. Twenty-four hours later, ”Free the Ozo 3” T-shirts became the sartorial statement for socially conscious conventioneers.