Rancho Nicasio, a little piece of heaven in west Marin
It’s just another Sunday at Rancho Nicasio. A down-home band is rocking on stage, fans are clapping and dancing, the scent of seared ribs is making everyone hungry and the late-afternoon sun is shining on the golden hills of west Marin.
The ranch’s summer barbecues have become a North Bay tradition, with up to 500 music lovers enjoying the relaxed vibe of the old roadhouse, which traces its roots to the 19th century.
“It’s a little piece of heaven,” said Lyvette Jones of Antioch, who drove more than an hour in late July to see an outdoor Rancho Nicasio show headlined by Paul Thorn.
“When I was driving here I thought I must be lost, there’s no way anything could be out here,” Jones said. But soon she saw the whitewashed Old St. Mary’s Church and Rancho Nicasio’s red-tile roof, and she knew she had found the place.
Tamara Vinson, a Thorn fan who came all the way from Sugarland, Tex., called Rancho Nicasio “paradise” and said: “You can’t duplicate this place anywhere. I hope you don’t take it for granted because you live here every day.”
For the past 18 years, Rancho Nicasio has been owned by Bob Brown, a former band manager (Huey Lewis and the News, Pablo Cruise), who has transformed the roadhouse into one of the North Bay’s most appealing venues.
The musicians who have played at the rural Marin venue since Brown took over range from Van Morrison to Buckwheat Zydeco and include regular annual visitors such as Asleep at the Wheel (Aug. 28).
Brown likes to bring lesser-known but highly talented bands, such as Sons of the Soul Revivers gospel group, which opened for Thorn and brought the crowd to its feet. “This valley will never be the same, and that’s a good thing!” Brown shouted to the crowd after the inspiring opening set.
What makes Rancho Nicasio so special is the vibe that infuses the place. Sunday barbecues feel like functional family reunions where regular patrons hug one another and strangers become friends by the end of the day.
Brown, who is married to Texas blues singer Angela Strehli, welcomes bands as though they’re old friends, which they usually are.
At the end of Thorn’s set, Brown gave the Mississippi singer-songwriter a pat on the back and exhorted the crowd to cheer for another encore, telling them he knew Thorn was off the next day so could probably be brought back for one more song.
Brown, who grew up in Queens, has lived in the Bay Area for 47 years but still speaks with a strong New York accent. The moment he heard that Rancho Nicasio was for sale, he said he leapt at the chance to buy it.
Early on the morning of Friday, July 3, 1998, Brown recalled, he saw a Paul Liberatore column in the Marin Independent Journal with the headline: “Marin Town for Sale.”
“Before I even read the article, I knew it was Nicasio. What other town could be for sale?” he said.
“I drove down to Rancho Nicasio that morning and waited for somebody to get there, and I bought it. It never got listed. Something just told me this would be good for me to do at that stage of my life.”