There are bands and musicians that redefine a genre of music for the ages. The Beatles in rock. Parker, Monk, Coltrane and Gillespie in Jazz. Tonight I witnessed that evolution in Bluegrass: The Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile.
I must preface this review by saying that I am not a die-hard enthusiast of bluegrass music, which is a lot like baseball: It has its following, largely by purists who keep this form of traditional American music alive.
Much of that is, both with joy and reverence, a backward-looking journey, where most of what I have seen creatively is a respectful and quiet expansion of the genre by its new young players.
The Punch Brothers have great respect, but they are to Bluegrass what Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn were to manned space flight.
Chris Thile is not just a mandolin virtuoso and a consummate performer reminiscent of other genre benders like R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe or Talking Heads' David Byrne. He is a compositional genius aided in the construction by a quintet of talented and envelope-pushing musicians including Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Noam Pikelny on the banjo, Chris Eldridge on guitar, and newcomer Paul Kowert on the Bass.
They play with an energy and a passion of trailblazers. If you came to see traditional bluegrass, you were given your due during the encores. The body of the show filled the air of the Interlochen Center of the Arts with the sounds of a performance that took that traditional music to the outer limits and back, with fusions of jazz improvisations, and a little rock attitude to the Rock-of-Ages genre.
Thile, whose ADD-like gyrations evoke memories of Elvis and move him like a hypnotic pinball around the band as it plays, may seem the focal point of the band. That would be a mistaken impresson though. You are aware that the other four players are equally important stages of the rocket blasting off in front of you.
Witcher transformed his instrument from the fiddle to the violin to the synthesizer. He produced sounds and tones from the delicate and other-worldly to the dissonant and out-there. Bassist Kowert pairs well with him, bowing and plucking the upright bass to produce sounds that ground in the traditional and then soar off into the upper stratosphere. Eldrige knows how to support and solo, and has mastered a flow with the others that is nearly flawless.
It is, ironically, as they are usually the show-boats, the bass-voiced banjo player, Noam Pikelny, that acts as the grounding strap that keeps this live-wire band from tearing loose and flying off into space. A consummate performer in his own right, it is his solid counterpoint to Thile's wild gyrations and picking that allows the band to connect back with those of us on the planet seated before them.
The songs played tonight, largely from their current album "Antifogmatic," whose title refers to the "head clearing" belt of booze that, in days gone by, were meant to clear the head before a day of work, were both personal in lyrics and saturated in the quintet's intensely personal exploration and musical experimentation.
"Rye Whiskey" was a particularly smooth blend of the traditional and the out-there, but every song from this, or Thile's debut album, or their first album, "Punch" left the audience delighted, amazed, and maybe a bit exhausted from more than 90 minutes of high-energy performance.
If you wondered, though, whether they could play straight bluegrass as masterfully, the question was answered in three encores which pandered to the traditionalists and had them leaving the theater tapping their toes and smiling.
If you have not seen them, you should find out where the Punch Brothers are going and get there. Even if you don't like bluegrass, suspend your bias for the evening and take the plunge. You will find, from whatever genre you come; Rock, jazz, blues, etc, that you have arrived at a concert that will be both impressive and make bluegrass accessible because it resonates elements of your musical world.
Someone may ask one day where you were when you caught an act that, like the Beatles, deftly rewrote the boundaries of their genre and opened the door for Bluegrass to a new generation of fans.
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