My first thought in walking into the Winspear last night was how much of a turnout Natalie Merchant can still bring. Throngs of people were filing in. Her fans clearly have not left her despite the seven years that separate her newest album Leave Your Sleep from April and 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter. However, the audience may have been a bit perplexed about what they were getting.

When Merchant walked out, the applause was enthusiastic. Then she began talking about her album of 26 songs that put various vintage children’s poems to music. With a slideshow of bookplates and authors’ pictures, she started with a trio of slow (and by that I mean slowwwwwwww) songs that were nicely received, but with no signs of her signature hits. Had I missed something? Because it sounded like we were in store for all 26 songs. Eesh.

The tone picked up when her poetic interpretations moved into livelier tones of jazz, folk and even Appalachian textures. The music and her voice were pristine in the opera house and with some rowdier tunes, the concert kicked into overdrive. Until an hour later, she said her goodbyes. I did not appreciate this tease. I knew she’d have to give an encore, but if all we’d be hearing was one song from her back catalog, I would have cried ripoff.

This was hardly the case. An hourlong encore started with “Wonder” and gave the audience some relief that finally they’d be hearing what they came to hear. She delivered strongly following with “Carnival,” 10,000 Maniacs’ “These Are Days” and the obligatory, but still fitting, “Thank You” as her final song of the night.

Her voice really has to be one of the strongest in music. She pulled off strong vocal runs and then wispy high notes while dancing with wavy hand movements and hair flipping. Merchant is still that indie chick from years ago, but she’s also this Zen peaceful presence. When she spoke, it was in a soothing monotone, yet she still joked with the band and audience which felt unexpected from such a “serious artist.”

The shining moments of the night were her Dallas quips. She referenced her show at the Bronco Bowl by singing a dittie about the cockroaches and rats who had to find a new home after it was torn down. Earlier in the night, she sang Frank Loesser’s “Big D” followed by The Flatlanders’ “Dallas.”