Margaret Moser - Austin Chronicle

More than any other city, San Antonio is the rock & roll crossroads of Texas, literally. Not only did Robert Johnson record in a hotel room here, it is the first major stop on the main drag out of Mexico, crisscrossed by interstates that connect coasts and countries. No wonder the city known as the birthplace of Texas liberty boasts a musical identity as mighty as the Alamo itself.

The shots fired by San Antonio in the rock & roll world of the 60s were still exploding in 1974 when ULTRA was born. That may seem like a broad reach for a city whose heaviest musical lines are bred through Latino and country, but San Antonio boasted a well-documented jazz and blues underground on the Chitlin’ Circuit that made rock & roll explode out of South Texas in the 1960s. What happened in the wake of the Beatles’ appearance altered the landscape for decades to come, and San Antonio’s young musicians reflected that.

Here, S.A. native Galen Niles began playing guitar in such seminal rock bands as The Argyles, The Outcasts, and The Pipelines before founding Homer, whose vinyl output ranks among Texas’ most collectible. Don Evans landed here from Arizona after high school and played with Sugar Bear’s Blues Band before fronting progressive blues rock  favorites The Water Brothers in the late 60s, then joining a late lineup of Homer with Niles.

By the early 70s, Texas’ claim on rock music staked itself in such bands as Bloodrock, Point Blank, and ZZ Top, and younger musicians like a hotshot guitarist named Larry McGuffin, who’d played in Eastern Fleet while in high school. In 1974, McGuffin convinced his guitar teacher and mentor Galen Niles and vocalist Don Evans in a new group aimed at double barrel rock & roll guitars and Texas beat. All ULTRA needed was a rhythm section.

Bassist Scott Stephens and drummer Tom Schleuning always considered themselves a package deal, having played together in bands like Iron Rock and Jury in high school. More than that, they were a dream team that fit ULTRA perfectly. Thus, the city that invented twin saxophones found that its premier rock band in the mid-70s likewise boasted double-barrel guitars and a rip-roaring shot of Southern rock, Texas blues, and Marshall law. A deal with Stone City Attractions ensured a regular schedule of tearing up the stage at the long-running Sunday Sunken Gardens shows and clubs across the state.

And ULTRA was canny. Stone City helped develop San Antonio in the 70s into a high profile, hard rock market unmatched anywhere else in the U.S., and the five-piece landed opening spots with road warrior guitar bands of the 70s, including Alvin Lee, Pat Travers, Blackfoot, Legs Diamond, Moxy, and Be-Bop Deluxe. After their legendary gig opening for the Sex Pistols at Randy’s Rodeo in January 1978, ULTRA assessed the future painted in punk neon colors and disco lights, and disbanded gracefully. That move left all five in good standing with one another for the next thirty years or so, and the lingering memory of rock & roll at its zenith.

An invitation to perform at the premiere Texas Legacy Music Awards in September 2011 was more than the former band mates could resist. Scott Stephens urged Galen Niles, but it took little prodding: ULTRA was inducted into the South Texas Music Hall of Fame on September 4, 2011; so was Niles for Most Valuable Player. Their reunion set at Floore’s lit the still-smoldering fire and brought the house down, leaving the unsuspecting stage scorched and smoking, as seen on YouTube.

To the everlasting regret of all, ULTRA left little recorded output, but what remains reveals sleek, tough-as-nails rock that needs no introduction or explanation, merely volume and room to groove. Between 1976 and ‘77, Niles, Evans, and McGuffin wrote an album’s worth of tracks and recorded them with Stephens and Schleuning at S.A.’s United Audio Recording Studio, engineered by Bob Bruce. A 5-track EP and a few demos surfaced, but little else. In 2000, Monster Records released ULTRA’s eponymous first - and only - CD in 2000, still available online, and considered a lost masterpiece of Texas rock.

“ULTRA forgoes generic redneck-isms for a vibe that if not entirely anti-celebratory, is cautionary and introspective for a genre more known for beer-swilling, ass-grabbing bravado. It's lamentable that major labels were clueless to these guys during their brief late 70s run,” raved the hard rock blogs.

Reissuing their music and reuniting did more than inspire Ultra to keep their instruments plugged, however, ULTRA renewed a commitment to rock & roll as dedicated as the day they agreed to split over 30 years ago. Galen Niles and Don Evans currently keep their chops up with Goodnight Avenue and El Even respectively, while Larry McGuffin, Scott Stephens and Tom Schleuning usually sit it out. All five now agree: ULTRA still has power to spare.


Your attention, please. Not for very long, because ULTRA knows you are busy, they simply want to remind you that rock & roll plugs into your jugular and exits through the brain with white lightning speed. So while the top of your skull is exploding from the righteousness that is ULTRA, take a few more minutes to thank your lucky stars Texas still makes rock that rolls.  Oh, and turn up the volume.