Such is the scenario for Jeff Mangum, the Neutral Milk front man who took his spot at the right side of the stage of Union Transfer before an enthusiastically reverential crowd on Thursday.
After several songs performed by Mangum and a rotating cast of as many as six other instrument-switching musicians - including Julian Koster, who played guitar, bowed banjo, Moog synthesizer, and musical saw, among other instruments - the dude behind me spoke for the audience as a whole in shouting out a simple request: "Play it again!"
Of course, Mangum didn't plan any of this. Now 43, the guitarist and songwriter got burned out on touring behind In the Aeroplane. He reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown and led a reclusive existence during the '00s. In 2011, he set hearts aflutter by going on a solo tour, and got NMH back together late last year.
For a guy with a reputation as a troubled soul, Mangum seemed quite comfortable in his own skin at UT on Thursday - or at least, comfortable in his woolly sweater, railroad cap, and prodigious beard. The band is camera-shy, though: The only extant promo photos date back a decade and a half, and the audience was asked to respect a no-photography-or-recording request, which pretty much everybody did.
NMH's songs are built around Mangum's rough acoustic guitar and powerful, declamatory voice, which echoes in indie-folkies that have followed him, such as Colin Meloy of the Decemberists. The singer sang some solo, like the opening "King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. One" and "Two Headed Boy, Pt. 2."
But many songs, such as the distorted "Holland, 1945" and the galloping "Ghost," were delivered with enough punky, garage-rock energy to get a mosh pit going. The band shape-shifted giddily, drawing from Aeroplane and its 1996 predecessor, Avery Island, and playing no new material. One moment, a conventional-looking indie band was up on stage; the next, it was a nutty and (thankfully) never-too-polished ensemble with three horns and two accordions.
Mangum's allusive songs are quite serious. Back when he gave interviews, he talked about the influence of The Diary of Anne Frank on the often-fantastical Aeroplane. But the appeal of these tunes is built on more than just mystery and musicality. They impart a sense of wonder at the strangeness and beauty of everyday life.
In Aeroplane's title song, the centerpiece of Thursday's highly entertaining 80-minute show, Mangum summed it up this way, offering musical advice to an audience that sang it right back to him: "One day we will die and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea/ But for now we are young, let us lay in the sun and count every beautiful thing we can see."