The Lineup

Tom Maxwell

Pittsboro, N.C.

Tom Maxwell offers a Swiss Army Knife of musical possibilities: From jazz, cabaret and swing to roots, rock and country ballads, you can’t be sure what you’ll get, only that it will be high quality. But Maxwell’s more of character actor than a leading man. He’s not one for pushing envelopes or grandstanding, though he’s certainly capable of stealing the spotlight when the opportunity presents; look no farther than the hit “Hell,” which he penned while in the Squirrel Nut Zippers.

After departing the Zippers in 1999, Maxwell released his solo debut, Samsara, a swing-jazz set that dovetailed nicely with his prior work, though perhaps didn’t do a lot to extend his brand. Maxwell did commercial work and played around town with Ken Mosher and Robert Sledge, but he didn’t offer another official solo release until last year’s brilliant Kingdom Come. Shaped by his divorce and his son’s battle with cancer, it is angry, plaintive, hopeful and sweet. It’s also a nearly perfect mix of rock spirit and chamber-pop elegance. The two elements unite in the gorgeous but profane capitulation, “Fuck It.” He sparks up a jumping little rag on “Why I Smoke,” enumerating the many causes for his addictions. For all the wit, Maxwell’s not just clowning. His song “Tenderness” captures the sterile sadness of a hospital children’s ward with a Theremin and a lonely ache that recalls Roger Waters on Floyd’s The Final Cut.

Maxwell’s a real talent and a local hidden treasure, but the map is now at hand. It may have taken a misfortune to reignite the fire, but the spark’s always been there. —Chris Parker