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Deborah Henson-Conant

Deborah Henson-Conant, who bills herself as the "world's foremost electric harpist," will perform a one-woman show at the Columbia Theatre on Feb. 23.

If you're expecting a demure woman sitting behind an elegant wood harp, from which she plucks soft classical melodies, you'll be in for a surprise with Deborah Henson-Conant.

The wiry Henson-Conant struts around the stage, a custom-built electric harp strapped in front of her. She steps on a distortion pedal just like electric guitarists use.

"It allows me to sound like Jimi Hendrix," she said.

To top that, Henson-Conant can belt out show tunes with her big, brassy voice.

The harpist bills herself as the "world's foremost electric harpist," will perform a one-woman show at the Columbia Theatre on Feb. 23.

Henson-Conant, 59, said she trained as a classical harpist playing a standard instrument that weighs about 75 pounds and has 47 strings.

"I looked at the harp and said, ‘Why is the harp only making this sound?' " she said. Thus began a quest that ended when a French company, drawing on bicycle frame technology, built her a 32-string harp that weighs 11 pounds.

"Over the years it's become more and more a part of my body," she said.

Electrification allowed Henson-Conant to branch into blues, flamenco, Celtic, funk, folk and jazz.

Judging from her videos, she has plenty of stage presence and could easily front a blues or rock band. She sings during about two-thirds of her show, with the rest instrumentals, she said.

Yes, some folks are surprised when they come to hear her, Henson-Conant said -- but in a good way.

"Men will come up to me and say, ‘My wife dragged me to this thing but I loved it.' People say, ‘I was afraid I was going to fall asleep.' There's this prediction when they hear the word ‘harp.' "

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