The third annual West Beach Music & Arts Festival kicked off on a pleasantly cool Friday afternoon in Santa Barbara, to a modest but enthusiastic crowd. By early evening, several thousand music fans made their way to the venue, enjoying the calm before the storm, with thousands more expected to join them by the weekend.

The first day’s light attendance made it easy to move about and access this year’s set up. Upon first glance, it was evident that the festival was bigger and better than the years before. The first day was expanded to include an additional two hours of music. The massive main stage had bigger and better lighting and sound. The Bashment stage had a large Jumbotron visible day and night with live coverage of the action on both stages. The Oasis stage, mostly electronic music, became a main event this year instead of the sideshow of years past.

Encased in a tent, and complete with a rave-lovers light show, the venue even boasted its own beer bar in the back. The food court also was greatly expanded, with lots of treats from Santa Barbara restaurants. This year also featured more arts and craft vendors.

By the time I made it inside the venue, the music was well under way. I trudged across the sand as quickly as possible to the main stage to catch the afternoon set by Donavon Frankenreiter. Often compared to his record label mate Jack Johnson, I find Frankenreiter musically more interesting.

With his tight group of bluesy musicians, he launched into some gutsy blues-inspired jams that lit up the crowd. The California surfer musician has a strong sound reminiscent of 1970s jam bands, such as the Black Crowes or the Allman Brothers. His set was well received by the small but vocal crowd.

I was half-hoping for a surprise appearance by G. Love, scheduled to perform at the festival the next day and a longtime collaborator on his albums, but I was not disappointed by his strong set.

Next I wandered over to the Bashment stage to catch a much-anticipated set by Ozomatli. A favorite pick for music festivals across the nation and the world, this Los Angeles-based funky jam band has been fusing Latin rhythms, hip hop, reggae and rock music since 1995.

No strangers to the Santa Barbara music scene, the band once led fans outside in a dancing frenzy, playing acoustic instruments onto State Street from Velvet Jones nightclub. Santa Barbara police arrested band members for inciting a riot.

As the sun set, the band hit the stage in front of a rapidly growing crowd at the West Beach festival. One by one, the band’s members danced onto the stage, bringing layer after layer of instrumental sound and vocals to life until there was an orgy of jamming genres exploding from the stage. Frenetic fans caught up in the excitement began gyrating wildly to the music.

Just when energy levels seemed to be at their peak, Chali 2na appeared on stage and brought a new level of excitement into the crowd. The tall, charismatic MC rapper was one of the founding members of Ozomatli, but he left the band a decade ago to join famed hip-hop group Jurassic 5. It wasn’t until the past year that he rejoined the band he helped found.

For a change of pace, I walked across the festival to the Oasis tent to have a beer and listen to a bit of local DJ Erik Lohr. He played a powerful set of techno dance tunes to a small but frenzied group of electronic music lovers.

I then hiked back to the main stage for the main event of the night, Steel Pulse. The Grammy-winning roots reggae band from England is the real deal. Releasing their first recording in 1975, the Rasta band has been writing and recording socially relevant music since. Their infectious sound had the West Beach crowd grooving to their music, as a cloud of smoke hovered over the beach.

I made my way back to the Oasis tent for more beer while I watched a ferocious set by DJ Bassnectar, aka Lorin Ashton. I first saw this innovative DJ play on the 2004 Jam Cruise. The Jam Cruise is one of those annual events that any true audiophile with the means should try to attend at least once. Confined to a cruise ship for nearly a week, fans are immersed in music from dozens of the world’s best jam bands. The groups play through the night on a half-dozen stages, and break-up bands often regroup in impromptu jams. Music fans get to live with their favorite musicians, as if they were on a giant tour bus together.

That is where I first witnessed Bassnectar’s masterful mixing. The problem with many of the world’s best DJs is that although they create fascinating music, they do very little mixing when they appear live. Bassnectar is one of the exceptions, playing and tweaking a host of electronic gadgets that sculpt his sound into a living portrait of unique electronic music. By the end of his set, the Oasis tent was full. Festival promoters may have to think about making a bigger tent for the DJs next year.

All in all, it was a great opening to this year’s festival.

— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributor.