EW Recaps the South by Southwest Music Festival -- The music conference featured performances by Robert Plant, Bloc Party, M.I.A., and more!

By Leah Greenblatt and Michael Endelman
Updated March 28, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

What’s boozy and schmoozy and smells like slow-cooked ribs?

Why, it’s the 19th annual South by Southwest music fest in Austin! Despite falling national record sales (down 10 percent from this time last year), attendance was up 15 percent, with some 8,600 industry hounds and 1,600 journalists flocking to see 1,350 musical acts. From March 16 to 20, the usually bucolic streets of the capital city became a tangled mass of Blackberry-toting execs, cool-hunting scribes, and pasty music geeks, all looking for the Next Big Thing. Over the four days of blown eardrums and sweaty venues, here’s what we found.

MOST UNEXPECTED REUNION Those hoping for a spontaneous Page-Plant event at Robert Plant’s lively keynote address were let down, but there was a reunion of another kind. During the Q&A portion, an audience member stood up to ask, ”Do you still have groupies?” Surprise — it was none other than onetime Übergroupie Pamela Des Barres, who ran up for an impromptu embrace. The pair hadn’t seen each other in nearly 15 years.

BRITISH INVASION, VOL. 237 Between Bloc Party, the Kaiser Chiefs, the Futureheads, Tom Vek, and Maximo Park, Austin swarmed with U.K. rockers. And judging by the crowds and critical raves, the bands (each a variation on the tried-and-true formula of punk/disco/new wave awesome-osity) were nearly unstoppable. Even these supermen had their kryptonite, though: As Bloc Party bassist Gordon Moakes drily told a capacity Spin-magazine-party crowd, ”We’re not used to sunshine. We’re from England, you know.”

BRITISH INVASION, VOL. 238 Two and a half decades after the Sugarhill Gang, the rest of the globe is learning how to compete: Innovate, don’t imitate. Heavily hyped Sri Lankan/British rapper M.I.A. didn’t disappoint. Her postcolonial hip-hop mashed up underdog global beat science into pelvis-grinding agitprop. (Bonus: She looked adorable in a sequined tracksuit.) And rather than aping U.S. hip-hop ‘tude, the eight-man Welsh crew Goldie Lookin Chain mocked it with absurd comedy-rap. Our fave, ”Your Mother’s Got a Penis,” owes more to Monty Python than Mos Def.

BEST TAIL-SHAKING TREND Normally cement-shoed indie kids got down to the beat-centric sounds of bands like Seattle’s joyful collective U.S.E, witty disco dark-wavers LCD Soundsystem, and British pastiche party-makers the Go! Team. ¡Viva la dance!

SAY WHAT? At a panel discussion, Napster creator Sean Fanning awkwardly tried to explain his new venture, SNOCAP. It’s a sort of clearinghouse for digital music rights. At least, that’s what we think he said.

BEST UNSIGNED BAND L.A.’s the Blood Arm, who put on a beer-soaked, fist-pumping rock & roll circus. At the center of the storm is speaker-climbing, audience-kissing, wild-eyed singer Nathaniel Fregoso. Oh, and the music — anthemic, disco-dusted indie rock played with revival-tent fervor — has already made them Franz Ferdinand’s favorite new band. In the words of Gwen Stefani: What are you waiting for?

ATTACK OF THE ROCK-STAR SQUEEZES Jagger ex Jerry Hall joined 30-year-old classically trained singer-songwriter Rachel Fuller on their co-penned take-that-Mick nugget, ”Around This Table.” The whooping crowd included newspaper mogul Phil Bronstein and ex-Tex governor Ann Richards; absent was Fuller’s old man, Pete Townshend.

STAR JONESING A few boldface names invaded this music-industry spring break blowout: a fresh-faced Frodo, a.k.a. Elijah Wood, mingling at the Fader magazine party while Canadian singer Feist played. . .Jessica Simpson, bodyguards in tow, rocking out to Queens of the Stone Age at the DKNY Jeans party (cosponsored by EW and Listen2This). . .politicos Karl Rove and Karen Hughes incongruously brunching among the skinny and shaggy at Las Manitas.