CAMBRIDGE -- The richness of her voice has never been in doubt, but one never knows which Natalie Merchant will grace the stage on concert night. Monday night at Sanders Theatre, it was the charming, chatty one, if also a bit fatigued from giving her third show in three nights.
Interspersed among her 17 songs were observations about the number of billionaires in Moscow, the prospect of sharing David Letterman's stage with Bill Clinton, and why anyone would use binoculars in the Sanders: "It doesn't get more intimate than this."
Just as she'd promised in a letter to fans on her website before setting out Saturday night on her 18-date tour, her first in a couple of years, the show focused on "The House Carpenter's Daughter," her 2003 collection of folk songs.
Bolstered by Richie Stearns on banjo and Judy Hyman on fiddle, Merchant opened with five straight from the album, and later returned to it to produce the show's highlight, a spooky, multilayered rendition of "Diver Boy." Erik Della Penna served as chief twanger, but he got help from fellow guitarist Gabriel Gordon, who not only wielded his own instrument but plucked out a note or two on the neck of Della Penna's.
Gordon also lent a vocal presence, secondary to Merchant to be sure, but as strong as anyone could ever be on her stage. They sang in duet on "Break Your Heart," Merchant's only offering from 1998's "Ophelia." Still, that was one more than she offered from her 10,000 Maniacs catalog. Merchant chose four from "Tigerlily," her 1995 solo debut, including a tepid "Carnival," and four from 2001's "Motherland," including "This House Is on Fire," which ended the first encore, and the title track, which constituted the second.
She wrote and recorded "This House Is on Fire" (whose lyrics suggest signs of an "evil blaze" to come) in the few months before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. As she sang it Monday night, she chose to stand behind a banner dominated by a peace symbol. It was the only time during the show she didn't insist on being the center of attention.