For three nights, from Jan. 25 until Jan. 27 here in Champaign-Urbana, anything is possible.

The Rolling Stones could roll through downtown Champaign and blow the mind of the CU community with a rousing performance of “Beast of Burden.” The Beastie Boys could end up dropping rhymes at the Highdive late Friday night. Bowie might make a surprise appearance at Cowboy Monkey and play a few tunes. Maybe Radiohead will start playing “Creep” at the exact moment that you make an awkward pass at someone.

Whatever the circumstances, there is an electricity in the air. And from Jan. 25 through Jan. 27, the 16th Annual Great Cover Up will be taking place at the Highdive (Thursday and Friday night) and Cowboy Monkey (Saturday).

There will be 20 bands performing at The Great Cover Up; each of these bands will play approximately five songs. Cover is $7 all three nights.

For those who are unacquainted with The Great Cover Up, it is an event in which local bands select an artist to cover and play a brief set by the band. Many artists dress up like the band they are covering, and some never break character the entire evening.

The concerts have become famous for their ambitious performances. Bands are encouraged to step outside of their comfort zone, and many artists relish the opportunity to explore different musical genres. Thus, creativity and originality are central characteristics of the event.

“The message is pretty much sent across the board that you shouldn’t pick a band you’d normally cover,” said Ryan Groff, whose band, elsinore, is playing the final set on Thursday night at the Highdive.

Over the last 16 years, The Great Cover Up has developed a unique history. The buzz about notably great performances lingers on years after they occur, and bands realize that a spectacular show could earn them a special place in the Champaign music scene.

Take, for example, the legendary performances of last year’s event when Temple of Low Men covered Radiohead and Headlights took the stage as Bjork. Many will never forget when Poster Children covered The Who, tearing through “We Won’t Get Fooled Again” in one of the most electrifying performances The Great Cover Up has ever seen.

The prospect of delivering one of these performances motivates many artists to spend months preparing their set. Groff said that his band has been practicing for The Great Cover up since September. He would not, however, reveal what band they would be covering.

Many artists try to keep information about their set quiet, making a concentrated effort not to tell anyone what band they will be portraying. Therefore, an aura of secrecy hovers around many of the performances.

“It keeps the edge for the bands performing,” said Groff. “It creates a situation where you can blow everyone away when you play that first chord. You can see the excitement on everyone’s face.”

Because of this secrecy, the moments leading up to a band’s set can be very suspenseful.

“It gives it a little bit of mystery,” said Ward Gollings, who has organized the event every year since its beginning. “The audience has fun trying to figure out which band an artist will play when they are setting up. The element of surprise adds a lot to it.”

Although every band sets their sights on playing a memorable set, the mood of the event is by no means tense. Instead, it provides an opportunity for local bands to imitate the acts that have inspired them.

“Everyone really has a great time,” Gollings said. “It’s the one time each year when local bands who are carving out their niche can masquerade as their heroes.”

Another endearing characteristic of The Great Cover Up is that its proceeds go to charity. It has not always been a charity event, but its organizers decided that the event should contribute to a good cause.

Last year the even helped victims of Hurricane Katrina in Alabama. This year three charities will benefit from the three-day event: A Woman’s Fund, Crisis Nursery and Provena Hospice.

Many see The Great Cover Up as an event that brings bands into the local scene. Being invited to play is a great compliment, strengthening the ties of the band with the community.

“It was probably the first time we really felt like we were a part of the Champaign music scene,” said Groff.

And now, with four months of practice under their belt, elsinore will return to The Great Cover Up trying to top their performance from last year. Such is the hope of all bands performing.

For three days Champaign’s biggest acts will pose as music’s biggest stars. As January 25 approaches, the excitement is escalating, the suspense is building and Champaign’s music fans are left with one burning question:

Who will deliver 2007’s classic performance?

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