Music/Lyrics: Anastasio, Marshall
Vocals: Trey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Historian: Jeremy D. Goodwin
Amid the serene acoustic songs that debuted in 1996, “Character Zero” stood out as the only brand-new rocker. In this sense it was viewed by some as a song with more potential as a live piece than its brethren “Train Song,” “Talk,” and “Waste.” The song was unveiled at the Joyous Lake surprise show, and was aired once more (a month later in France) before being set aside for the rest of the summer. It entered the rotation for the first time in fall ‘96, and its role quickly became clear: of its first fifteen appearances, six were as a first set closer. Nowadays, is usually found closing the first or second set or in the encore slot, as mid-set peformances of "Character Zero" have become relative rarities.
"Character Zero" – 10/31/96, Atlanta, GA
“Character Zero” has generally gotten a little bit better every tour, but it has strayed from its boundaries only once. An early high-profile appearance came on 12/31/96, when it had the honor of closing the second set. That night, a surprisingly blistering jam became the soundtrack for the launch of a hot air balloon into the atmosphere of the FleetCenter, adding a surreal touch to the performance. Future versions typically featured a slightly longer and more intense jam than those of the first versions, but the song remained a pretty straight-forward “Type I” tune. It was like an even more restrained “Chalk Dust Torture.” Also note that later versions omit the brief vocal jam that closed initial performances and the studio version on Billy Breathes.
"Character Zero" – 12/3/09, New York, NY
The “Character Zero” paradigm took a radical shift in Hartford on 11/26/97, when the song received a nearly twenty minute, fully jammed treatment. This jam was quite in character of fall ‘97, when traditionally pedestrian songs were often jammed out to an unprecedented extent. This “Zero” performance featured an excellent pass at the normal jam (which hinted at a return to the closing vocals, but eventually bypassed them altogether), followed by an impressive exploration of some ‘70s rock-styled themes, which finally slunk down (via Fishman’s slithery machinations) into the brilliant “Also Sprach Super-bad” – a version of “2001” that included a jam on James Brown’s “Superbad.” A less auspicious rendition of the tune was the abridged, edgy performance given by a very exhausted, scraggly group of men on 3/5/97. Phish had just returned from a brief Europe tour (which had, by the way, blazed the band’s first fiery fingerprint into the epic year that was in the making) on that awkward afternoon in the studios of The Late Show with David Letterman. (The Einstein Editing Award goes to the quirky television director that day, who cut to extreme close-ups of Mike’s face every time he was screaming “aiy! aiy!,” but otherwise left the subdued bassist mostly out of the broadcast.)
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Also kinda interesting is the version from 10/15/98, when Reba was going through it's brief "Harry Hood Early Summer 2012" phase and refusing to finish itself, turning a nasty -> Walk Away-> Simple one night, and a mind melt-> Zero the next time it was played.
The Zero itself may not be the greatest, but 10/15/98 has some pretty interesting segments with Ghost-> Water In The Sky and Velvet> Caspian-> Frankie Says.