The Pipi Pickers – Devonport Bunker: December 5, 2022

The Pipi Pickers are one of the premier bluegrass bands in New Zealand, and they played a hot set of tunes at the iconic Devonport folk music venue.

They are from Leigh and have built their own little fiefdom out there. The home venue is the Whangateau Hall where they run a folk club. A regular fixture at the Auckland Folk Festival, which is celebrating fifty years at the January Anniversary weekend. They are principal organisers of Kiwigrass, this country’s own bluegrass festival which premiered in Hamilton in 2019.

Nat Torkington (You,Me,Everybody) is the Earl Scruggs-styled virtuoso banjo-picker. The band was founded by father Barry Torkington on guitar. Originally, he was the banjo player, having been inspired by hearing the tiny amount of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs that used to be played on national radio. Gary Bigwood on mandolin, played in a local blues band called the Leigh Buoys for many years. The last member to join was Jenine Abarbanel (Hot Diggity) on the bull fiddle and lead vocalist. She is the colourful front-person for the band and gives the group a distinctive sound. Nat and Jenine are married.

They have been described as Newgrass, a progressive style which took hold in the Eighties. But then, bluegrass has always been a hybrid of americana which borrowed elements of blues, folk and country. It paralleled the rise of be-bop jazz by Charlie Parker and company in the early Forties. Lightning-fast solo breaks stretching the boundaries of melody. Bluegrass can be slow and gospel. It is thrilling at break-neck speed and would out-run the Ramones.


To me, Newgrass is just a natural seamless progression. What exactly was Elvis doing when he went nuclear with Blue Moon of Kentucky in 1954? Hell, that’s different, that’s a pop song now. Said Sam Phillips.

They start with She’ll Change by Molly Tuttle. A medium tempo swinger. Abarbanel comes from Colorado and was not a bluegrass singer until she was co-opted into the band. Distinctly American accent and a broader range than just country. She blends the older sound of a Rose Maddox with that of a Gillian Welch, maybe.

Her signature song is probably I Will Survive from Gloria Gaynor. She sings it as country soul. It is done as the encore.

Annabelle sounds as old as the hills, but it’s a Gillian Welch song. A song of regret which ends in the church. The mandolin solo echoes old mountain music.

Graveyard Shift has a ragtime jazz opening and is sung by Bigwood. Mandolin and guitar take solos which highlight this.

Nice One is an instrumental written by Nat. Rolling banjo riffs are reeled off and it swings hard as it progresses.

They point out that bluegrass songs often involve violence. Almost always it’s a woman that comes off the worst. Country and folk music is about the human condition and its acceptance. They do Old Time Angels by Jim Lauderdale, which is an attempt to redress this, where the angels seek vengeance. That’s Little Sadie, Pretty Polly and Darling Cory.

Sadie’s Got Her New Dress On from Doyle Lawson sounds like classic bluegrass and would be perfect for some clog dancing.

Rain in Durango by Guy Clark is a perfect vehicle for the lead singer. A shaggy dog story about hippies and getting heartbroken by a banjo picker. It’s country americana. It would not be out of place at a Grateful Dead show.

I concede that a classic bluegrass band would not cover Come Sail Away by Styx. In their hands it sounds like a country folk song of hope.  

The Lonely Heartstrings Band is a favourite of theirs and everyone in the room, and it’s more folk with a Dillard’s sound on their version of Road’s Salvation.

Social Disease from Elton John. There was always a fair amount of country in his early works including this one from Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.    

Compadres of the Old Sierra Madre from the Waybacks has the western style of the Sons of Pioneers.

Throughout it all we have superb banjo, mandolin and guitar breaks which gain their individual cheers.

The Pipi Pickers are all great musicians who cover bluegrass, classic and new, with great style and wit. You can catch them at the Auckland Folk Festival next. Or you can always take the scenic trip to Leigh.

Rev Orange Peel