Music: Damon keeps it in the family

ROCK Blur NEC, Birmingham James NEC, Birmingham Lightning Seeds Hammersmith Palais, London

It's been a rough old year for Britpop. Travis and the Stereophonics aside, the UK's white-boys-with-guitars have been beaten hollow by the UK's white-boys-and-girls-with-Abba-songs. Albums by everyone from Suede to Gomez have failed to find a handhold in the top 10, and in the dying weeks of the year, it's left to three bands to wrest 1999 back from Steps and Westlife.

Blur approach the task with a cunning strategy. Saleswise, their latest album, 13, has been unlucky for some, so the band have resorted to a "Singles Night" tour - they're playing all 22 of their singles, in chronological order. Considering how dismissive Damon Albarn can be of Britpop these days, I was expecting him to sing "Parklife" with all the relish he would a medley of Oasis hits, but he seemed more relaxed and genial than on any other occasion I've seen Blur in concert. He's made peace with his back catalogue. He introduced "Bang" as "definitely our worst song", then added, "But it's our thing, and you gotta deal with your own thing. It's like a family, innit?" Albarn is now a family man.

Maybe fatherhood has mellowed him. Or maybe the show's unconventional structure is therapeutic. What was surprising about this parade of singles was that it took the emphasis off the Parklife era more effectively than a concert consisting solely of their post-Britpop tracks would have done. It let the band demonstrate scientifically that they were making exciting singles long before "Girls and Boys" and long after "Country House".

I wouldn't recommend this A-Z route to every band, though: it can make for a predictable and badly paced evening. But to accompany Blur on a journey which spans the 1990s so neatly is fascinating - even moving, especially when live footage of the younger, more manic Blur appears on the video screens. Through the evening, we watch their hair get shorter and their waist measurements get bigger. We hear them go from baggy to Britpop to art-punk, from confident to cocky to petulant, before they come to rest with this year's poignant trilogy of bruised, resigned singles from 13, "Tender", "Coffee & TV" and, appropriately, "No Distance Left To Run". The show proved that Blur are not just Britpoppers; they're musicians who have never stopped evolving. Only the quality has remained constant.

There were some magical moments during James's concert. One came while Tim Booth was singing "Say Something" and he suddenly hopped off the stage and waded through the crowd. On and on he walked, with a spotlight picking out his red Chelsea Pensioner's coat as if he were the little girl in Schindler's List. Then the music stopped. Booth pretended to be stranded halfway down this warehouse of a venue. "How do I get back?" he wailed. "You don't," replied Saul Davies, one of James's guitarists. And so the group's mystique was deflated once again.

It's getting to be a habit. James were bound for glory at the start of the decade, but then, with impeccably bad timing, they took a sabbatical while Britpop was all the rage. They got back on track last year when The Best Of James went double platinum, and this year's tremendous Millionaires seemed set to complete their rehabilitation. So far, however, "seemed" has been the operative word. If early sales are anything to go by, Millionaires is mistitled.

Similarly, James's current arena tour should have cemented their reputation as one of the great British bands. Booth was certainly optimistic. As soon as he took the stage he was doing his trademark dance, like an unconscious man who'd been grabbed by the scruff of the neck and shaken violently by an invisible giant. "I think we're going to make up for a bad day at the office yesterday," he predicted.

But he spoke too soon. James's many uplifting anthems were suitably sublime, but there were long, rambling songs in between which the seven performers couldn't keep together. At one point they played so noticeably out of time that Davies had to joke about it. "Most bands do a thing called rehearsal," he quipped. "We don't bother. That's what makes us special." The backing vocals weren't quite in tune, Booth was losing his voice and there was confusion over the running order - what Davies termed "an arse/ elbow situation". By his reckoning, then, this was a very "special" show.

The Lightning Seeds' latest album, Tilt, is - like Blur's - noisier, sadder and more personal than usual. It's still very much a pop album, but it confirms that there's more to them than music for car adverts and "Three Lions" - which they didn't play in concert on Monday. This new, harder, darker Lightning Seeds were personified by Ian Broudie, who was more gaunt than he used to be, with shorter, spikier hair and an altogether less mole-like appearance.

But that's about all there is to report. Perhaps remembering one of their own better known refrains - "Don't ever change" - the Seeds put on a typically plain, low-key concert. Most of the bittersweet, bubblegum songs tripped along at the same pace, and the audience sang along so lustily that Broudie need hardly have been there. He hardly was.

James: Wembley Arena (0181 902 0902), tonight. Lightning Seeds: Cambridge Corn Exchange (01223 357851), tonight; Norwich UEA (0115 912 9000), Mon; Wolverhampton Civic Hall (01902 552121), Wed; Hull City Hall (01482 226655), Thurs

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